Book bans increase the marginalization of our most vulnerable students

April 4, 2022

The Hill Op-Ed

By Javaid Siddiqi, President & CEO of The Hunt Institute

As the ripple effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought renewed — and perhaps unprecedented — attention to how and what students are learning in the classroom, public schools have been inundated with bans and investigations around student access to certain books, stories and lessons.

From the removal of “Maus,” a graphic novel that tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, from classrooms in McMinn County, Tenn., to the removal of books that tell the stories of LGBTQ+ individuals from schools in Texas, these bans have focused on narratives that involve historically marginalized communities and individuals — those that have generally struggled to get their stories told.

These bans are also coming down as the debate around “critical race theory” has drawn attention to how teachers share the history and current experience of being a person of color in this country. Parents are calling for Black authors like Toni Morrison and Angie Thomas to be removed from classrooms and school libraries. A school in Indiana even offered parents the opportunity to opt their children out of Black history lessons, and at least one school district recently made the decision to “freeze” a range of books and resources about influential Black historical figures, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to integrate into an all-white elementary school in the South.

While this isn’t the first time we’ve seen stories by and about people of color, LGBTQ+ identities and women challenged and censored in classrooms, there is now an unprecedented rate of complaints being submitted to educators, district leaders, state policymakers and school and local librarians. There have even been instances of prosecutors considering charges against librarians for stocking books considered objectionable. While these cases have so far not made it past the discovery phase, librarians and educators are self-censoring and working in fear of not only losing their jobs for sharing information deemed inappropriate but also being criminally charged.

And students themselves are sharing their stories to make sure we know how this censorship is causing harm. They’re fighting back by holding banned book clubs and attending school board meetings to advocate for bans to be lifted and to push back on proposals to take additional books off school shelves. I implore education leaders and policymakers across the country to listen to these voices and consider the role of these materials in not only teaching students about historically underreported events and people but also in supporting their mental and emotional health.

Let’s be clear — an increase in parent, family and community engagement in schools and student learning is positive. Research shows that the extent to which families encourage learning at home and involve themselves in their child’s education is the best predictor of student success. But now, our COVID Constituency work with former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise has shown that parents are energized in a way that we have never seen before, pushing for educators and policymakers to harness this unique opportunity to transform our schools and education systems to advance equity, prepare students for the jobs of the future and provide holistic support for students academic, mental and emotional needs.

However, as we hear news about book bans, it is critical that we consider whose voices are not being heard in these debates. Throughout the history of parent organizing and activism, parents of color, in low-income households, who speak English as a second language or not at all, or who are LGTBQ+ often find themselves on the outside of parent groups. Parents in higher income brackets tend to attend more school events and meetings and when they want to change something at their child’s school, they recruit other parents who look like them and share their experiences and perspectives. When these parents organize, students whose parents lack the time, access to resources or influence needed to be heard by school boards and district leaders are left without a voice.

As we continue to navigate a changing world, we must continue to seek out the voices of those unheard, consider the consequences of actions based on fear and do everything we can to ensure our children are supported mentally, emotionally and academically.

Students have enough to deal with after the last two years, let’s not allow these book bans to give them more.

Javaid Siddiqi, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Hunt Institute.

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