When she was in fourth grade, McKenna Gran saw someone who she identified with for the very first time. It was while reading a book she got from her school library.

The character was a teenager who was bisexual and trying to come out to her parents. Gran, now an Oakland Mills High School student, said she felt a strong connection to this character, though at the time, she wasn’t sure why.

Her school library in Howard County is a place that Gran and many of her peers frequent and feel safe in. She is part of the LGBTQ community, and said she loves to read books with LGBTQ characters, which she can get at her school.

“We actually have rainbow stickers on our books, and I pick up some books just to see how the author decided to display the representation,” said Gran, 16. “It was very central to me growing up, because I didn’t grow up with books with queer characters in them until I got to be a teenager and had to actively look for them. So it’s very nice that our libraries here are very inclusive.”

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Gran and more than 550 others are worried that could change. They’ve signed a petition asking the Howard County Board of Education not to give in to the demands of Moms for Liberty, a conservative parent-rights group that’s seeking more restrictions on the books in school libraries. In neighboring Carroll County, the Moms for Liberty chapter successfully campaigned to get more than 50 books temporarily taken off school library shelves, a move that led to a new policy banning texts with sexually explicit content.

In Howard County, the group has targeted more than three dozen titles, many of which have LGBTQ authors and characters. The most recent book the group challenged — which was recommended to stay in libraries — was “Juliet Takes a Breath” by Gabby Rivera, a book in which the main character begins to identify as a lesbian.

The opposition has been strong, with dozens of protesters flooding a Moms for Liberty meeting in February. The school board chair has publicly refused to entertain the book battles. But until recently, the response from students has been mostly quiet.

Gran said she never worried about books getting banned in her school library, and was even dismissive of Moms for Liberty taking aim at her county’s schools.

But as one of the co-class presidents and the Howard County Association of Student Councils recording secretary-elect, she’s listened to her peers.

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“I started hearing more whispers from students getting concerned, especially those who do often use the library and who have read the books they are trying to ban,” Gran said.

She said this was a personal matter to her.

“A lot of students are very scared to go up and testify [at school board meetings] due to news that Moms for Liberty harasses students, staff members in other areas of the country, so I decided to make a petition and use my connections and reach out to various groups,” Gran said.

Gran brought her petition to a school board meeting at the end of May and testified.

“We plead that the HCPSS Board of Education not step in, in regards to the book banning attempts and instead let the review board continue to effectively and safely do its job,” Gran said at the May 30 school board meeting. “We also request that you protect our people of color and LGBTQ+ youth, and not give in to the demands of Moms For Liberty. We simply want ourselves, our peers, and our kids to feel safe in HCPSS.”

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Kris Green, a seventh grader at Patuxent Valley Middle School, was one of two students who stood with Gran as she testified. Green is a co-founder of Lavender Leadership, a group that has read books targeted by Moms for Liberty.

The group is a queer safe space, said Green, who uses they/them pronouns. Without books representing diverse experiences, they said, “it leaves us with a feeling of un-belonging, and a lack of education on different people.”

Howard County Public Schools already have a procedure in place if the public disagrees with what’s on school library shelves. A committee with at least one student, parents and educators review and decide whether approved library and curriculum instruction materials should stay on the shelf after a student or parent requests its removal.

School board Chair Jen Mallo said the board has not taken any actions other than listening to public testimony at board meetings. She said there are numerous complaints from Moms for Liberty members who want books reviewed and removed, which Mallo said is “ostensibly book banning, but not using that terminology.”

Mallo said she is heavily against banning books and she is wholly committed to preventing it from happening.

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“I do believe that this board supports the policy we have in place and is not interested in removing books that our media specialists and our educators deem age appropriate,” she said.

She’s even thought about signing Gran’s petition. But because she is the school board chair and would be the one receiving the petition, she didn’t think it made sense to do so.

“I want the students to know that I do not support banning books,” Mallo said.

Earlier this year, the Maryland legislature passed the Freedom to Read Act, setting guardrails against attempts to remove books from school and public libraries based on the author’s background. Moms for Liberty members, however, have said that their objections are to sexual content, which is not protected by the law.

“This bill appears to make it difficult to have pornography removed from the school media centers and it seems to be a direct response to Carroll County’s successful efforts to have 15 books removed from their school system,” said Lisa Geraghty, the Howard County chapter chair of Moms for Liberty.

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Geraghty said that she commended the student-led petition “because our group is very supportive of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and we applaud anyone that fights for their cause. That wouldn’t be anything that would bother us in any way; we would support it.”

Green, the seventh grader, said they don’t know what the next steps are for their petition or what they will do, but they are happy to stand for something they believe in and that it resonates so deeply with their peers.

Gran said she has alway felt safe and welcomed in Howard County. Banning books, she said, would make her and her peers “feel a lot less safe, a lot less included.”

“As one of my two class presidents, talking with students and advocating throughout the years, something that’s always come up is how inclusive Howard County is,” Gran said, “and a book ban would kind of ruin that and dampen that.”