Carroll County Public Schools can’t keep up with a flood of requests to review 56 school library books by a group of parents who oppose their content, so the superintendent has temporarily taken them off the shelves.

Flooding the queue is the conservative parents-rights group Moms for Liberty, whose Carroll County chapter has joined its nationwide call for stricter school library book selection, targeting titles with sexual content, in particular.

Meanwhile, school librarians were told last month they must follow a time-consuming checklist policing a book’s content before adding it to school libraries. And the school system’s librarian supervisor moved to a lower-level job after a request to banish a batch of books was rejected.

A group of librarians rallied supporters to wear black at Carroll’s school board meeting on Wednesday evening in protest.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Carroll County is among a growing number of Maryland school systems seeing pushes to remove books from their libraries as a national movement takes root here. The American Library Association reported in March that 2022 saw the highest number of book challenges since the organization was founded 20 years ago. The 1,269 attempts nearly double the challenges in 2021.

The Maryland Association of School Librarians has supported librarians facing book challenges in Wicomico, Worcester, Calvert, Somerset and Baltimore counties. But Carroll is the only one to change its book selection procedure in response.

Carey Gaddis, a spokesperson for the school system, said its new checklist for librarians “is documentation that our established process and criteria have been used.” It includes statements like “appropriate for recommended age/grade levels,” “reflective of the pluralistic nature of American society,” “representative of differing viewpoints,” and “does not include sexually explicit content.”

The system also revised its selection criteria for classroom instruction materials like textbooks to specify that they should “not include sexually explicit content.”

Page 23 of Selection Evaluation Adoption of Instructional Materials-August 2023 booklet
Contributed to DocumentCloud by The Baltimore Banner (The Baltimore Banner) • View document or read text

“School librarians would need to read every book in its entirety to comply,” the school librarians association wrote in a statement opposing the new checklist. “Considering that new and wonderful books are being published yearly and a school library’s purchase of new books could be several hundred, it is an unrealistic expectation and will result in significantly fewer books being able to be placed on the shelf for student access.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The group questioned the term “sexually explicit” since it could have different meanings to different people. They noted that librarians use professional review sources like School Library Journal and Booklist, as well as awards lists, to pick high-quality books as efficiently as possible.

They also emphasized that librarians have other responsibilities the new requirement will get in the way of.

Celeste Jordan, president of Carroll County’s teachers union, said many librarians, also referred to as media specialists, are serving as tech liaisons now that every student has a laptop, and spend most of the day teaching and learning with students and staff.

The association stated on its website that Carroll school librarians were told they’d be accountable for any content in a book deemed inappropriate and that they can no longer order books that crossed grade levels. That means if a book is for seventh graders and up, it can’t be put in middle school libraries, since sixth graders could have access. Books for adults, even nonfiction and cookbooks, can’t be purchased for high schools “with no exceptions.”

Removing 56 books

Parents’ challenges to school library books aren’t new, but in Carroll County, they’ve escalated in the last year. Jordan said the system used to receive about four or five challenges a year. As of Friday, 56 books are now being challenged, according to a list the school system sent The Banner.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

People who want to challenge a book can contact the school’s librarian or principal for a reconsideration form. It’s up to the school system’s reconsideration committee to determine its fate. Carroll’s committee has 12 people: media specialists, school administrators, an instruction supervisor, a teacher, parents and students.

According to school policy, the committee meets within 30 days after reconsideration is requested and the Supervisor of Library Media notifies the challenger of the committee’s decision within 10 school days. The decision can be appealed to the superintendent, and the superintendent’s decision can be appealed to the school board.

But Superintendent Cynthia McCabe said that process isn’t designed to handle the volume of challenges Carroll County is now seeing. She declined an interview, but said in a statement that it was “necessary, reasonable and measured” to pull those books off the shelves for now.

“Our reconsideration process was established to review a single book or maybe a couple of books,” her statement said. “Given these factors, we have had to acknowledge that we will not be able to meet the 30-day timeline in our process for the reconsideration committee to meet and decide.”

She said she has no intention of permanently changing the process and does not want to interfere with the committee, noting that she recently replaced committee members whose terms have expired. She wants her staff to focus on the start of the school year and doesn’t want the book challenges to be a distraction.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Board policy, which was last revised Aug. 4, states materials can be removed from the library during the reconsideration process. But opening that door can set a dangerous precedent, according to Nathan Curtis, a director for Carroll’s teachers union. If people know challenging a book means temporary removal, it may encourage them to challenge more.

“I believe that people have the right to ask for book reviews if they read the book and they find it questionable,” said Jordan, president of the teachers union. “But I also think our media specialists are trained professionals and, like any other educator, should be trusted to do their job.”

A challenge from conservative moms

Moms for Liberty, the group at the helm of the book challenges in Carroll County, uses to find books they want to challenge, according to Kit Hart, chair of Carroll’s chapter. They search the school system’s library database for any titles flagged by the review site, which is run by “concerned parents” and rates books on a “not for minors” scale of one to five. It adds excerpts and page numbers for sections deemed inappropriate.

For example, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George M. Johnson, one of the books being challenged in Carroll County schools, was rated a four out of five because it contains “sexual nudity; sexual activities including sexual assault; alternate gender ideologies; profanity and derogatory terms; alcohol and drug use” and “controversial racial commentary.” The book is a series of essays written by a journalist and LGBTQ activist about his experience growing up a queer Black man.

Although a large portion of Carroll’s challenged books are written by queer people and authors of color, Hart said in an email that the challenges have nothing to do with race or the LGBTQ community. Instead, they are concerned about “very descriptive and graphic sexual content,” she said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The national Moms for Liberty organization, however, “opposes LGBTQ+ and racially inclusive school curriculum and has advocated book bans,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which classified the group as antigovernment and far-right.

Hart called “book banning” and “censorship” buzzwords that are used to incite anger.

“To ban a book means to remove it from circulation, and that simply is not happening,” she said.

If a book was removed from the library, students can access them elsewhere, Hart noted, like a bookstore or public library.

A few of the challenged titles have already been reviewed by Carroll’s reconsideration committee. Documents obtained by The Banner show eight letters were sent to the challengers on Aug. 21 rejecting their requests to remove “Not that Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture” by Roxanne Gay, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, “The Sun and her Flowers” by Rupi Kaur, “Tilt” by Ellen Hopkins, and “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut in high school libraries.

“Slaughterhouse Five,” however, was removed from middle schools.

“The book does not sensationalize war, violence, or trauma, but rather displays these topics through irony and absurd humor,” the letter stated about Vonnegut’s work. “The book should only be in high school collections as it is narratively and thematically too complex and challenging for readers of middle school age.”

Challengers have since appealed the committee’s decision to the superintendent. And Nick Shockney, assistant superintendent of instruction, criticized the committee’s decisions as “arbitrary and unreasonable” and sided against them in a letter obtained by The Banner. The titles kept in high schools can only be signed out with parent’s permission, he wrote.

The committee’s rejection letters were signed by Kathleen Brunnett, the school system’s supervisor of library media at the time. She has been with the school system for 25 years and a librarian for 17, according to LinkedIn. But somewhere between the day of the letters and the start of school, she transitioned to an English teacher at Northwest Middle School.

The state’s school librarians association told The Banner in a statement it’s advocating for Brunnett and is concerned about what it called her “reassignment.” Brunnett did not return a request for comment and the teachers union declined to comment on personnel matters.

Marsha Herbert, president of the school board, did not respond to a request for comment.

The association urged the public to email Carroll’s school board members and rallied dozens of people to wear black outside the school board meeting Wednesday evening.

One of them was Niki Guinan who has two Carroll County students.

“I’m very concerned that a small group of people can decide what my child has access to as far as reading materials go,” she said, adding that she trusts the media specialists’ judgment with book selection.

People wear black in opposition to the Carroll County superintendent's decision to remove 56 books from school libraries until a committee reviews them. (Kristen Griffith)

Also wearing black was community member Pamela Zappardino. She said removing the books is sort of like saying “the books have been deemed guilty until proven innocent instead of innocent until proven guilty.”

The book removals drew the attention of organizations like Trans Maryland. Lee Blinder, the executive director, said more books are needed so LGBTQ students can see themselves represented and know they aren’t alone in the world.

“We need to protect our youth. We need to protect our schools because it’s clear that it’s under assault,” Dorien Rogers, president of Maryland’s NAACP youth and college division.

He said if books are being targeted, then school curriculum could be next. He hopes the board uplifting books that are representative of different students.

During the meeting, both people who supported the librarians and parents who supported the books’ removal voiced their opinions. Jessica Garland, who was wearing her Moms for Liberty shirt, said she was surprised the topic turned into an uproar and said she hasn’t heard the opposition defend the inappropriate passages found in the challenged books.

The mom of three boys, as well as other commenters, read some excerpts out loud. An audience member interrupted Garland to tell her children were in the room.

“But you want to put it in a library,” someone else responded.

Two students spoke afterwards, defending the books and saying that they’re representative of different groups of people. Adultslike Wendy Novak said it’s insulting to refer to some of the books as porn when they’re written by survivors of sexual assault sharing their experiences. Removing their work is silencing them, she said.

Not just in Carroll County

Chris Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, called the country’s wave of book challenges a national crisis. The last time he’s seen it this out of hand, he said, was in the 1980s, when books by author Judy Blume were popular. There was no internet at the time, however, and no deeply divided political groups to drive it, he said.

“Thousands of kids are being deprived of books just on the say-so of, sometimes, a single parent,” he said. “In some places, it’s just community members who don’t like certain books and found this convenient way to ban them.”

The removed books from Carroll’s shelves will be unavailable to kids for a long time, Finan noted. He called it a First Amendment violation and thinks it’s something an “overwhelming amount” of Carroll County parents would disagree with.

On Aug. 30, he wrote a letter to Carroll County Public Schools admonishing McCabe for what she did and encouraged her to have a policy that requires access to books remain unrestricted during the reconsideration process.

“A policy that keeps books in the library discourages complainants from filing large-scale meritless challenges,” the letter stated. “In its absence, mass challenges may be filed for the sole purpose of temporarily, but effectively limiting students’ access to ideas the complainers’ dislike.”

More From The Banner