A wave of new bills seeks to restrict potentially controversial topics in schools


Brennan Mumper

Numerous states have introduced legislation to limit or ban certain subjects or books from schools.

Brennan Mumper, Staff Writer

Since 2021, 41 states have introduced bills that would restrict what content can be discussed or shared with students in public K-12 schools.
While some of the bills simply ban the teaching of misinformation, many ban discussion of gender and sexuality or of critical race theory. Nineteen of these bills have become law.
“The 10th Amendment of the United States Constitution reserved power that’s not delegated to the national government nor prohibited to the states, to the states and the people,” said social studies teacher Adam Haynes. “Legislating and implementing the K-12 education system is within the police authority of the states.”
The effects of these laws are most clear in Florida, which passed a bill that requires all books to be screened by a district employee with a valid educational media specialist certificate. While librarians and teachers attend trainings, shelves are left empty.
Violators of the bill could be charged with a 3rd-degree felony for distributing sexually explicit material to minors on school property.
Hayes librarian Sarah Ressler said that it is important to trust librarians to do their job.
“I am going to ask a doctor to tell me what to do when I’m sick. I’m going to ask a librarian what book to read when I need something,” Ressler said. “I think that trusting the trained professional to do whatever job it is that they are doing is the best way to ensure a positive collection.”
Kindergarten to 3rd grade classes in Florida are also not allowed to discuss gender or sexuality, and the Stop W.O.K.E. Act disallows the teaching of any material that could make an individual feel guilt or psychological distress because of their race or sex, such as the history of racial discrimination and misogyny in the United States.
“Florida is number one when it comes to education freedom and education choice,” Florida governor Ron DeSantis said in a press release in March.
Haynes explained that the states have control over what is taught in K-12 schools.
“Although individual school districts and teachers have authority on how to teach curriculum, the states dictate what that curriculum is,” Haynes said.
Book banning has been on the rise as well.
A book is challenged when an attempt is made by a group to remove or restrict access to it at a particular library, school, curriculum, or organization. If that challenge is successful and the book is removed, then that book has been banned.
Ressler spoke about what she thinks should be done with difficult or controversial books.
“The way that we talk about things is that, when a book is not appropriate for a student, that is the family’s decision, and I am fully in support if a family feels that their student should not read a book,” Ressler said. “The issue is when that family says any child should not read that book.”
In Texas, a judge ruled against book banning after library patrons sued because of “inappropriate” books being taken off the shelves by the country. The affected books will be replaced until the case is decided.
More than 2,500 instances of book banning occurred in the 2021-22 school year. Almost half of the books banned were intended for young adults. More than 40% of the banned books contained LGBTQ+ themes and characters, and 22% contained sexual content. 40% of the books had a protagonist or a main character who was a person of color, and 21% discussed race and racism.
“That makes me sad because there are students who need that book for different reasons. Books save lives,” Ressler said.
Book banning and restriction of material in American schools, however, is nothing new.
One example is the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization founded in 1894 which sought to ensure that the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” was taught in southern schools. The “Lost Cause” notion insists that the Civil War was not fought over slavery, and that the Confederates were heroic defenders of the Constitution. In reality, historical documents indicate that the primary cause of the Civil War was the issue of slavery.
Later, in the 1920s, conflicts among Protestants led to a resurgence in religious extremism, causing some to seek to ban the teaching of evolution in schools. In 1925, Tennessee succeeded, followed by Mississippi and Arkansas.
The Red Scare caused a whole new surge of censorship. Books like Robin Hood were pulled off the shelves at libraries for their “Communist” undertones. Social science textbooks by Dr. Harold Ordway Rugg were banned, burned, and denounced for being “un-American” for discussing issues of class and classism, even though Rugg himself insisted that he was not a Communist.
In the modern era, though, most people like to think they have the freedom to learn, read, and study whatever they like.
At Hayes, the library celebrates Banned Books Week every October.
“It’s been done since before I was the librarian,” Ressler said. “Former librarians celebrated Banned Books Week, so I carried on that tradition. It is not a celebration of banned books. It is a celebration of our right to read and…bring awareness to issues surrounding censorship.”
In a time when many curriculums are being slimmed down and restricted, Haynes said that he thinks robust social studies classes teach students to be good citizens.
“We’re training students to become active, informed, and contributing citizens of society,” Haynes said. “And to be a citizen, you have to work at it really hard. You have to be informed, because you get to vote, you get to participate in the process. So that means you need to be able to understand all perspectives, as many as you can.”
He added that he thinks the education system works better when the whole community is involved.
“Our education system is a partnership between many stakeholders,” Haynes said. “And it takes a village to raise our children, our students. So the more that people can participate and contribute in the process, we get a stronger, more robust society.”