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How To Alert Your School Board to Right-Wing Bad Actors: Book Censorship News, September 1, 2023

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

The scores of individual parents and collective parent/parental advocate groups working to speak up against censorship continues to grow day by day. It is encouraging, especially in the wake of on-going, uncritical attention given to groups eagerly working to destroy public education across the country. Anti-censorship groups are working to ensure the voices of BIPOC and queer individuals are being heard in the schools and remain accessible in schools and libraries across the country. It is tiring work, but it is work on the right side of history. It is work that is not about the books but about the people who those books represent.

While there are templates for speaking/writing to school boards and templates for writing or speaking to legislators that are useful for parents and community activists, as well as templates for library workers looking to update and strengthen their book challenge policies, one under explored arena is how to reach out to school boards and talk with them about the fact that they’re being bombarded by right-wing bad actors.

Most school boards are not paying attention to what is happening at other school boards across the country. This is for good reason: they are too busy focused on their role as board members for a specific community. Because most school board elections are nonpartisan and thereby ostensibly a board elected without a political party or philosophy behind it, why would they need to spend time noticing what bad actors like Moms for Liberty or No Left Turn are doing elsewhere? The amount of time and effort that takes when nothing is happening right in front of you is significant, and because board members often have full time jobs and families themselves, well, monitoring activity is not always tenable. Do you spend your limited free time figuring out whether or not the superintendent met their goals for the year and therefore get to keep their jobs or do you watch what’s happening in a different community? In an ideal world, you could do both, but we live under capitalism.

Yet it is this very inattentiveness which allows both the national-level groups and hyper-local groups to dig their feet in and begin a slow — or maybe not even slow — takeover of the district.

This is where those anti-censorship groups have a tremendous opportunity. Not only can they give the board members a fair warning of what’s happening, but they can also get their name on the public record for doing that very thing (school and library board members using official email accounts are public record). Usually being put in the public record is something we want to discourage, as right-wing fascists love to waste taxpayer money on FOIA requests in order to dig up information they can pull out of context and claim indoctrination about. In this case, though, having your name or your group’s name on the public record serves several good purposes. First, it shows that you told the officials what was happening and left a paper trail. None of the board can feign not knowing if the information hit their inboxes directly. The other big benefit of this being on the record is other anti-censorship advocates can find you. Imagine a parent who wants to know what is happening in their district puts in a FOIA asking for emails with certain key words and they find your message. Now they can reach out to you directly for how and where they can get involved (this happened to me — a parent group in Indianola, Iowa got my contact information after FOIA’ing the district because I had reached out to a board member there and let them know they were being hosed by a local Moms for Liberty member trying to shovel their book ratings system into the district).

So how do you do this? It’s pretty straightforward, and you’ll need to make adjustments to the below template to fit your community.

First: collect the emails of every school or library board member. You’ll often find this right on the school or library’s website. There might be one email that goes to every board member, an email for each member, or both. If you have the option to email every board member with a separate email and a collective email, do both.

Second: collect all of your receipts of what’s going on in your community. This might be websites or social media posts, including screen shots that might be appearing or circulating from local right-wing groups. Know how to differentiate who the actors are in this case. Are they a Moms group? Are they from No Left Turn? Do you have your own local censor-friendly hate group? Is it a combination of them all or someone who is a frequent flier in a group like Mary in the Library (a product of No Left Turn and Utah Parents United, but on the state level)? Put all of this into a single file and label the documents best you can.

Then: email them something like the below. I’ll give the template, followed by an example of one I have written.

Dear [Fill in the School Board Member Names Individually] of the [School Board],

My name is [fill in the blank], and I live in [fill in the blank]. I have been paying attention to what is happening at school and library boards across the country and am concerned about my community — and the students in it — being tricked into believing a false narrative about what is happening with books on our shared shelves.

[Paragraph here about the group of concern, naming names and examples of what they’ve done/posted/shared].

I am concerned about the narrative that this group is using in communicating with you as a school board and with our community more broadly. They purport to stand up for “parental rights,” and they do so by demanding books be removed from shelves and by calling educators and librarians names like “indoctrinator” or “groomer.” [Put any examples of this in your community here]. [If you have specific examples in your community, share here and note that you’ve attached documents or screen shots].

Every person who pays taxes to [name school/library] has a right to have their voices heard, just as every person who uses these institutions has the right to be themselves and have access to material representing them — and people completely different from them. When the first individual or group attempts to remove the capacity of the second, there’s a problem.

Institutions like schools and libraries which serve the public have an obligation to also share the truth and make decisions based in fact, not on opinion. Groups like [name the group] have taken advantage of contemporary mis- and dis- information to write a narrative that is patently false and, unfortunately, have garnered a lot of attention for doing just that. “Parental rights” and other such phrases sound good, but when you begin to ask what that means, it is suppression of knowledge, information, and rights for those who do not agree with a particular agenda or specific set of beliefs.

Schools and libraries are spaces of education, where people learn how to think, not what to think. [Use this space to link to research or writing on the topics addressed in the letter — linking to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s work on “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” is always a good one!].

As a member of [name school/library] board, I encourage you to keep an eye on what’s happening and the language being used in public forums to discuss books, educators, librarians, and marginalized members of the community. [Include right here some kind of positive message about the work being done by the board — this can include maintaining a strong staff, implementing strong curriculum, highlighting achievements of students of all backgrounds in their meetings, encouraging use of diverse books and lessons in the classroom, etc. — you can do more than one!]. I hope to see this continue, as it helps us build a well-educated, well-rounded, curious, and engaged community.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

[Your name]

If you’re part of an anti-censorship group or coalition in your community doing the opposite of what you’re writing about, feel free to mention it in the beginning or end of your letter. Let the board, the educators, the librarians, and others know there are allies and advocates out there eager to help.

It might feel silly to read a template that is primarily fill-in-the-blank, but that’s actually the beauty of it. You’re going to make this as precise and local as possible to address the specific issues at hand and who is bringing them up. You can look at an example I’ve had from earlier this year. In my community, a small group of “liberty defenders” — who began, as many have, as anti-maskers, then moved to anti-vax rhetoric — were very unhappy about a potential GSA (Gender and Sexualities Alliance or Gay-Straight Alliance) being started at one of the middle schools. I could not make the school board meeting but wanted to not only voice my support of the creation of the GSA but also explain what was going on with the malcontents. This was to prepare the board for potential future complaints from the same contingent. You can read the letter here, which should help put the template into context. In this case, I referred not only to research but to relevant laws, too.

Enough people not only wrote and shared what was going on with the board, but they showed up to the meeting, too. The bigots? They did not, but now their agenda and affiliation was known by the board and anyone who might like to FOIA documents related to the discussion. The student group was approved.

With the beginning of the school year here, if you haven’t yet set up your plan for being a voice at board meetings, there is no better time than now. That goes for your local library board as well. The templates and suggestions work for both institutions, who are each targets in this ceaseless hostility from right-wing christofascist hate groups.

Book Censorship News: September 1, 2023

  • This is a stellar piece on the book challenges in Maine and where/how “tools” like BookLooks have played a role in them.
  • “The mayor of Ozark, Alabama on Saturday suggested defunding the Ozark Dale County Public Library if LGBTQ books remain in the young adult section.” This is called fascism. We should also stop being surprised — this is a pattern.
  • And in Houston County, Alabama too: “There’s a new push to ban some books with LGBTQ themes from the children’s section of the public library has come to Houston County. On Monday morning, WDHN got an e-mail from the chairman of the Houston County Commission, Brandon Shoupe, saying public institutions like our libraries are being ‘Infiltrated by political extremists,’ something he calls a deeply disturbing trend. His email began with a red sign reading: ‘No Woke Zone.'” He’s bought the rhetoric and is demanding LGBTQ+ books be removed from the youth section of the library.
  • A pair of bigots plan to challenge 30-some LGBTQ+ books at the Mobile Public Library (AL). The pair rescinded their challenges because — shocker — they didn’t actually read the books.
  • Here are the 100 books pulled from shelves at Fort Worth Independent School District (TX).
  • Missouri prisons just banned sending those experiencing incarceration books, even those who are friends or family. Recall that prisons remain the number one perpetrator of censorship in America.
  • St. Joseph County Public Library (IN) will not be removing two LGBTQ+ books from the teen section, despite the right-wingers calling for it. I think the director’s commentary here is really good. It won’t change their minds, but it’s good.
  • Four books have been removed from Rutherford County Library (TN) — Flamer, Let’s Talk About It, This Book Is Gay, and Queerfully and Wonderfully Made — by the library board. Why? Because of the Murfreesboro community decency standards.
  • “Yet here we are, sitting through a district meeting in which our superintendent reads out what SF 496 states is a sex act in incredibly graphic detail. Ironically, it is a thousand times more graphic than any of the material students have available in school libraries and assigned coursework. The law’s language is so graphic, in fact, that I couldn’t even have students read it to explain to them why I had to remove an entire shelf of books from my classroom, or why we cannot read a novel that was approved by our board seven years ago.” How the implementation of the book ban bill in Iowa is directly impacting educators. What a (purposeful) waste of money, time, and energy.
  • In Montgomery County, Maryland, a judge has ruled (rightly!) that parents cannot demand removal of their children from the classroom because lessons might involve LGBTQ+ storybooks. That’s a real thing that happened.
  • The new uneven landscape of U.S. public schools. The slug honestly says it all: “As students return to classrooms, schools are more expensive, more conservative, and more local than before.”
  • A single complaint from a Moms for Liberty member in Horry County, South Carolina managed to get 12 books removed from the district. The latest board meeting was, to put it nicely, a mess of feelings about that. The board didn’t bother following their own policies in making this decision, of course.
  • There’s another lawsuit in Escambia County, Florida over book banning, this time from the authors of And Tango Makes Three.
  • It took them several months of pushback, but the Hamilton East Library Board (IN) is pausing their removal of YA books left and right. At least temporarily. I covered this story in May.
  • Troy City Schools (OH) removed Beyond Magenta from the schools following a complaint.
  • The teachers union for educators at Prince William County Schools (VA) talks about the massive list of texts parents can demand exemption of their student from and how it is directly impacting teachers. Surprising no one, the bulk of the books contain LGBTQ+ people or content.
  • Galway Schools (NY) will not be banning two books which were challenged. Article may be paywalled, but one of the books was The 57 Bus.
  • So Klamath County Library (OR) used to host a social justice book club. County commissioners said they can’t do that anymore, so they rebranded the book club and now staff cannot serve as moderators because “Commissioners have expressed concern about taxpayer-funded staff being involved in political discussions in the role of moderators.” Okay, then!
  • Papillion La Vista schools (NE) will keep All Boys Aren’t Blue in the school libraries.
  • Natrona County School District No. 1 (WY) is still hearing complaints from the book crisis actors demanding that controversial books be removed from the libraries. The district’s new policy that requires opt-in permission for students to access those books is apparently not enough. It’s not okay for parents to parent their children; it needs to be done by someone who knows better now.
  • Worcester County Schools (MD) have been hearing complaints from the crisis actors, too, over several books in the district’s libraries. One had her complaint denied because — shock! — she doesn’t have a student in the district. The other claims there are 49 naughty books in the district. They are, of course, Moms for Liberty target titles.
  • “A new proposal from the Matanuska-Susitna school board [AK] would significantly weaken the role of the board’s student representative. The proposed changes are a big departure from how most other student representatives across the state are included in their local school boards. The proposal was developed after a contentious school board meeting in May, when the board discussed a citizen’s library advisory committee to review books in Mat-Su schools for pornographic content. Student representative Ben Kolendo asked several pointed questions about the selection process for members of the committee and about the ongoing contract negotiations with the teachers union. Two months later, a three-member board policy committee proposed weakening the student member’s role.” This school has a long history of this kind of decision making, and it’s worth reiterating that STUDENT RIGHTS are under fire, not “parental rights.”
  • This is likely paywalled, but Exeter Public Library will not be restricting books from young readers, despite demands from Exeter Township officials (PA).
  • Friday Night Lights is back on shelves in Mason City School District (IA).
  • From the real headlines in America, 2023, collection: “The Cumberland Police Department has found that the Greely High School library is not in violation of Maine state laws against dissemination of obscene matter to minors for providing access to the book Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, according to an Aug. 22 police report obtained by the Maine Wire.”
  • Students at Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (NC) temporarily have no library access while a parental rights bill is being evaluated.
  • Right wingers in Columbia, South Carolina want to create a “commission” to “investigate” what’s being read and taught in local schools. Sounds like morality policing.
  • Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp (IN) continues to hear complaints about books in the schools, books removed from the schools, pedophiles in classrooms, and more, but the thing standing out to me in this story is how angry the library workers in this district are at the way the board treats them.
  • Saw this coming (and predicted it at the top of the year as a trend for book banning this year), but the Amarillo Independent School District (TX) is withdrawing from the consortium which allowed students access to a wide array of books from surrounding public libraries.
  • “Alamance County’s [NC] commissioners have bumped an incumbent member of the county’s library committee to make room for a new appointee who rose to prominence about a year ago when she publicly criticized an LGBTQ-themed book display at the flagship branch of the county’s library system.” What’s that f word again?
  • Book challenges are having a chilling effect on school librarians. Here’s the data.
  • Indian River Schools (FL) decided to ignore their own policies and remove dozens of books because of Moms for Liberty complaints.
  • Book crisis actors are bombarding Pima County Public Libraries (AZ) with complaints. Again, I thought this wasn’t about books in public libraries? I recall “only at the schools” being an excuse…
  • The Brandon School Division in Manitoba, Canada is once again hearing from complainers about books in the district.
  • “A group of 10 women volunteers perused the children’s section of the Midland County Public Library’s Centennial branch [TX] on Wednesday morning, taking note of titles they deemed inappropriate for youths.” Cool because this is exactly how we want public libraries operating — a small group of volunteers with nothing better to do with their time determining what they believe to be appropriate.