ATLANTA -- The U.S. Department of Education has found that a suburban Atlanta school district's decision to remove some books from its libraries may have created a hostile environment that violated federal laws against race and sex discrimination.
The legal intervention by the department's Office of Civil Rights could curb efforts to ban books in other public school districts nationwide, especially when bans are focused on books that include content about LGBTQ and nonwhite people.
The Forsyth County school district settled the complaint, agreeing to explain the book removal process to students and offer "supportive measures" to students who may have been harmed. Forsyth County will also include questions about the issue in its yearly school climate survey of middle and high school students next year.
The federal intervention came after months of contention over books in the 54,000-student district.
Forsyth is Georgia's most affluent county, a rapidly growing suburb about 30 miles north of downtown Atlanta.
Forsyth County in January 2022 removed eight books, including Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," but allowed seven to return after further consideration.
It excluded only "All Boys Aren't Blue," a memoir by George M. Johnson about growing up as a gay Black man.
Federal officials wrote in a letter Friday that Forsyth County erred not so much in the removals, saying "the district limited its book screening process to sexually explicit material." Instead, officials found that the problem was how district officials talked about removals at school board meetings.
"Communications at board meetings conveyed the impression that books were being screened to exclude diverse authors and characters, including people who are LGBTQI+ and authors who are not white, leading to increased fears and possibly harassment," the department wrote.
One student came to a board meeting to warn "about the school environment becoming more harsh in the aftermath of the book removals and his fear about going to school," the letter says.
Becky Woomer of the Forsyth Coalition for Education, which has opposed book removals, said the findings back up fears that the school district was endorsing anti-gay views.
"Having those views validated, yeah, I think it harms students," Woomer said. "And when the books were put back on the shelves, it was done silently. So there was never this sense as a school community, 'OK, we messed up, we're sorry.'"
Jennifer Caracciolo, a spokesperson for Forsyth County schools, said a statement to students will help dispel those impressions.
"It's more about making sure we communicate with the students," she said.
Protests over books viewed as inappropriate had been led by a conservative group, Mama Bears of Forsyth County.
Members read sexually explicit passages from school books until the school board chairman ordered them to stop in March 2022, noting board policy prohibits profane remarks.
Members of the group argued that if the books were inappropriate to be read at a board meeting, they were inappropriate for children.
The board then banned one member, Alison Hair, from attending board meetings.
Hair and Mama Bears Chairwoman Cindy Martin sued in federal court, winning a ruling in February that the ban violated their First Amendment rights.
The group then resumed reading books at meetings.
Martin declined to comment on the settlement Monday.
Others attacked the federal intervention.
"Washington is TRAMPLING local control to push their radical agenda on kids, while stealing their innocence and childhood," tweeted former Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who now runs a conservative political group.
Book challenges have continued in Forsyth County under a 2022 Georgia law that allows parents to challenge material they consider obscene.
The district last month agreed to not let any students check out one book, "The Handsome Girl and Her Beautiful Boy," by B.T. Gottfried, without a parent's signature.
The book challenges in Republican-dominated Forsyth County followed conservative claims that the district was teaching harmful material on race. That controversy sometimes centered on district efforts to include nonwhite students, in what was once an entirely white county. White mobs drove out the county's entire Black population in 1912.
Georgia is just one state that has made it easier to challenge books.
The American Library Association reported more than 1,200 challenges to books nationwide in 2022, by far the most since the ALA began keeping data 20 years ago.