The U.S. Education Department’s civil rights enforcement arm has launched an investigation into a North Texas school district whose superintendent was secretly recorded ordering librarians to remove LGBTQ-themed library books.
Education and legal experts say the federal probe of the Granbury Independent School District — which stemmed from a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and reporting by NBC News, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune — appears to be the first such investigation explicitly tied to the nationwide movement to ban school library books dealing with sexuality and gender.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights notified Granbury school officials on Dec. 6 that it had opened the investigation following a July complaint by the ACLU, which accused the district of violating a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender. The ACLU complaint was based largely on an investigation published in March by NBC News, ProPublica and the Tribune that revealed that Granbury’s superintendent, Jeremy Glenn, instructed librarians to remove books dealing with sexual orientation and people who are transgender.
“I acknowledge that there are men that think they’re women and there are women that think they’re men,” Glenn told librarians in January, according to a leaked recording of the meeting obtained, verified and published exclusively by the news outlets. “I don’t have any issues with what people want to believe, but there’s no place for it in our libraries.”
Later in the meeting, Glenn clarified that he was specifically focused on removing books geared toward queer students: “It’s the transgender, LGBTQ and the sex — sexuality — in books,” he said, according to the recording.
The comments, combined with the district’s subsequent decision to remove dozens of library books pending a review, fostered a “pervasively hostile” environment for LGBTQ students, the ACLU wrote in its complaint. Chloe Kempf, an ACLU attorney, said the Education Department’s decision to open the investigation into Granbury ISD signals that the agency is concerned about what she described as “a wave” of anti-LGBTQ policies and book removals nationally.
“In this case it was made very clear, because the superintendent kind of said the quiet part out loud,” Kempf said in an interview. “It’s pretty clear that that kind of motivation is animating a lot of these policies nationwide.”
An Education Department spokesperson confirmed the investigation and said it was related to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of sex, gender and sexual orientation. The Office for Civil Rights doesn’t comment on pending investigations, the spokesperson said.
If the investigation confirms violations of students’ rights in Granbury schools, the agency can require the district to make policy changes and submit to federal monitoring.
Education and legal experts said the Education Department’s decision to open an investigation in Granbury is significant because it sets up a test of a somewhat novel legal argument by the ACLU: the idea that book removals themselves can create a hostile environment for certain classes of students.
“It’s certainly the first investigation I’ve seen by the agency testing that argument in this way,” said W. Scott Lewis, a managing partner at TNG, a consulting firm that advises school districts on complying with federal civil rights laws.
The ACLU of Texas made similar legal arguments in another civil rights complaint filed last month against the Keller Independent School District in North Texas in response to a policy banning any books that mention “gender fluidity.” The Education Department has yet to decide whether to open an investigation in Keller, Kempf said.
Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education at the nonprofit PEN America, which has tracked thousands of school book bans since last year, said the same legal argument could be made in districts across the country where parents, school board members and administrators have expressed anti-LGBTQ motivations.
“It’s not uncommon to see people explicitly saying that they want to remove LGBTQ books because they believe they are indoctrinating students,” said Friedman, who cited a case in Florida in which a teacher called for the removal of a children’s picture book about two male penguins because, she said, it promoted the “LGBTQ agenda.”
Granbury isn’t the only North Texas school district facing federal scrutiny.
The Office for Civil Rights over the past year has opened five investigations into allegations of discrimination at the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, a wealthy Fort Worth suburb that has been at the center of the national political fight over the ways schools address racism, gender and sexuality. If the Education Department finds Carroll students’ rights have been violated, experts said, the federal agency could require the district to implement the same types of diversity and inclusion training programs that conservative activists have fought to block in Southlake.
Part of the problem here is that Granbury ISD just elected a couple of self-righteous censors to its Board of Trustees, which makes this a bigger political issue. Maybe the voters there will get tired of this fight, or at least of the expense of fighting it, and start to fix their mistakes in the next election. That’s far from a guarantee, of course – it could easily get worse instead. Ultimately, changing hearts and minds is the best long-term solution, but in the meantime doing whatever it takes to protect the rights of the marginalized kids is paramount.
I’m glad to see this, and I absolutely hope these investigations will happen in the other named districts and more, but I fear that the penalties that the DOE is able to impose will be inadequate. Part of that problem is that often the biggest stick that the feds can wield is the threat of withholding funding, but doing that ultimately just hurts the people who most need the help, and doesn’t really affect the politicians in question. There are already plenty of local and state officials who are happy to defy the feds on all kinds of civil rights matters, which they can do because they have voter support and no fear of the potential consequences. The days when officials could be shamed into compliance, or at least into reverting to normative behavior, are over. We need to have a conversation about better and more effective ways to get the modern day segregationists to comply with federal law.