‘Divisive concepts’ law at work: LGBTQ books pulled from Cobb schools, Shakespeare flagged for review

By Rebecca Gaunt

Cobb County School District documents showed that at least 30 recently-acquired books with LGBTQ themes and characters were removed from high school libraries in August 2023, and revealed that classics, including works by William Shakespeare, were flagged for review.

An open records request by American Oversight, a nonpartisan government watchdog group, which was shared with the Courier, provided some insight into how Cobb County School District is responding to HB 1084, Georgia’s 2022 divisive concepts law known as “Protect Students First.” The law restricts classroom discussions on race and politically divisive topics. 

Gov. Brian Kemp signed the bill into law in April 2022. Critics argue the vague wording causes confusion about what is permitted and chills class discussions. 

While the bill expressly addresses matters of race in the curriculum, it does not specifically address sexuality or gender identity. However, part two of the bill gives the athletic oversight committee the authority to exclude transgender athletes from school sports.

Also passed in 2022, SB 226 allows for the removal of books deemed “harmful.”

American Oversight requested all documents pertaining to review of curriculum materials for concepts prohibited by HB 1084, records of any changes made or proposed by the district to any curriculum materials to address concepts prohibited by HB 1084, and records sufficient to identify any completed investigations into any individual for instructing using educational materials containing concepts prohibited by HB 1084.

Cobb’s policies, written to comply with Georgia law, specifically provide that the district will continue to instruct on and discuss “topics of slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, or racial discrimination, including topics relating to the enactment and enforcement of laws resulting in racial oppression, segregation, and discrimination in a professionally and academically appropriate manner and without espousing personal political beliefs.”

Identifying potentially divisive classroom materials

An email exchange regarding the “Picture Perfect Stem” series for grade K-2 showed that one lesson on planting trees was removed after review, while the rest of the lessons were approved. The pulled lesson uses the picture books “We Planted a Tree” by Diane Muldrow which depicts families planting trees in different parts of the world with a nod to Kenya’s successful Green Belt Movement, and “Wangari’s Trees of Peace” the true story of a Kenyan student fighting against deforestation.

The district declined to answer the Courier’s questions about why the lesson was deemed divisive.

Other books flagged for review included Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and “Antony and Cleopatra” for references to suicide, “Dracula” for vampires drinking blood, and “The Cage” for “Holocaust content-nothing too specific.”

Also flagged: “Divergent” for references to sex, assault, and kissing, “The Skin I’m In” for an attempted sexual assault, “Drama” for LGBT references, “The Star Fisher” for a parent hitting a child, and “Does My Head Look Big In This?” for references to sex, brief description of a miscarriage, and a character being told they look like a drag queen.

An 8th-grade question in an ELA persuasive writing unit was flagged. Students were asked to describe the way of life the Southern states sought to protect by seceding from the Union. A sample answer states, “The Southern way of life was a life of wealth and power that the people in the South enjoyed because of slavery. They wanted to govern themselves to protect the institution of slavery instead of being influenced or controlled by the North.” An anecdote about Dred Scott, a slave who unsuccessfully fought for his family’s freedom all the way to the Supreme Court was also noted as potentially divisive.

Materials pertaining to the highly-publicized investigation and firing of teacher Katie Rinderle from Due West Elementary for a lesson including the gender themed picture book “My Shadow is Purple” by Scott Stuart to her fifth grade students were also returned.

In order to get supplemental materials approved by the district, staff must submit information regarding the applicable standards, a quality assessment of the material and source (ie. author, publisher), whether it contains any potentially divisive concepts, and three links to reviews, one district-recommended source being Common Sense Media.

In one such request for use of “The Crossover” by Kwame Alexander, a staff member answered the question about why supplemental materials were needed in addition to district-provided material with, “This is a more recently published novel than most of the district-provided materials. Students enjoy more relevant texts.”

In another, requesting approval of “Operation Yes” by Sara Holmes, the staff member wrote, “Novel studies are no longer part of the Target curriculum now that AC [advanced content classes] exists. The needs and interests of advanced learners often go beyond what is available in grade level texts.”

Staff members were assigned to review materials related to the Read 180 and ESOL programs. The documents for ESOL indicated reviewers did not find any “materials harmful to minors.” 

“If there are any controversial issues or you’re in doubt, a third reader is required,” the instructions for reviewing Read 180 stated.

Library Weeding

Documents included an extensive log of books and materials removed from school libraries in August 2023. The Marietta Daily Journal published an article about the log in October 2023. Superintendent Chris Ragsdale lashed out at the newspaper at the subsequent school board meeting alleging it was misleading.

Ragsdale has routinely referred to the book removals as a matter of “good and evil.”

American Oversight’s review of the materials noted several removed titles, some of which overlapped with the MDJ’s list, including:

  • ”Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out” by Susan Kuklin
  • “Confronting Stereotypes” by Robert Rodi 
  • ”It’s Okay to Be Different” by Todd Parr
  • “The League of Super Feminists” by Mirion Malle
  • “American Women Activists” by Kathryn Cullen-DuPont

Weeding is an essential part of maintaining a library to keep materials up to date and relevant. 

According to the American Library Association, “All materials are considered for weeding based on accuracy, currency, and relevancy. Space limitations, edition, format, physical condition, and number of copies are considered when evaluating physical materials. While weeding is essential to the collection development process, it should not be used as a deselection tool for controversial materials (see the Library Bill of Rights).”

Cobb’s list from August included books acquired as far back as the 1990s, as well as obsolete technology.

However, of the more than 1,000 pages of weeded titles, the Courier focused on books listed in the first 650 pages that were acquired by the district for high school libraries as recently as 2021, 2022 and 2023. It did not include the titles marked as lost. 

Of the individual books that were weeded, 30 are noted online as containing LGBTQ themes or characters. One of those titles, “Flamer” by Mike Curato, has received most of the attention over its removal in CCSD. It was pulled from Harrison, Lassiter, and McEachern High Schools, as well as two middle schools, along with the novel “Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl” by Jesse Andrews, after the extreme right-wing, anti-LGBTQ extremist group Libs of Tik Tok reached out to complain that the district was providing sexually explicit material.

Read more here Libs of Tik Tok complaint behind books’ removal in Cobb schools – Cobb Courier (cobbcountycourier.com)

“Ready When You Are” by Gary Lonesborough was acquired in 2022 and weeded from the Wheeler High School library in August 2023. It’s the story of two Aboriginal boys in Australia dealing with homophobia, racism, and classism.

“Red, White, and Royal Blue,” by Casey McQuiston was weeded from the McEachern library. Records indicate it was acquired months earlier and was checked out to a student at the time. The story of a romance between the son of the president of the United States and the prince of England was turned into a movie in 2023. 

While “Ready When You Are” is categorized as a young adult novel for ages 12 and up, McQuiston’s royal love story is considered an adult novel and recommended by Common Sense Media for ages 16 and up.

“Felix Ever After” by Kacen Callender is a young adult novel about a trans artist who is the victim of a hate crime. Copies were acquired in 2020 and 2021, and pulled from Wheeler and McEachern High School. Common Sense Media recommended it for ages 15 and up.

“How It All Blew Up” by Arvin Ahmadi is a humorous take on a Muslim teen coming out. Wheeler removed a copy from its collection less than a year after obtaining it. Common Sense Media deemed it appropriate for ages 14 and up.

Kit Frick’s “All Eyes On Us” is a young adult mystery thriller that contains a character who is in fear of her fundamentalist Christian family learning that she has a girlfriend. It was removed six months after it was obtained for the Wheeler library. 

The Courier reached out to the district to ask why these particular books were deselected. It declined to participate in the story.

A complete list is included at the end of the article.

Titles dealing explicitly with race issues were also pulled.

Utah’s most challenged book, according to an article by Axios, was pulled from Wheeler High School. “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Perez is the story of an interracial couple in 1937 East Texas, against the backdrop of the New London School gas explosion, a real event that killed approximately 300 students and teachers. The copy was obtained in March 2022.

“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas is one of the most challenged books of the last few years for its themes and strong language. A 16-year-old girl witnesses a white police officer shoot a Black teenage boy, triggering protests and riots. Common Sense Media rates it appropriate for ages 13 and up, though several parent reviews indicated it’s better for 15/16 and up.

The newest copies were weeded at the middle school level, but copies predating the parameters of this search were also removed from Sprayberry and South Cobb High Schools.

Other race-themed books removed: 

  • “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson 

McEachern, acquired March 2021

  • “How to Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi  

McEachern, acquired March 2021

  • “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” by Emmanuel Acho 

McEachern, acquired March 2021

  • “The Undocumented Americans” by Karla Cornejo Vallavicenco 

Hillgrove, acquired May 2021

Not all recently acquired books that were purged in August 2023 fell, at least not overtly, into those categories.

Multiple books by romance author Colleen Hoover were pulled from Cobb schools. The Des Moines Register recently ranked Hoover as the fourth most banned author in the state of Iowa. 

Copies of “It” and “Later” by prolific horror author Stephen King and “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, as well as “Catch and Kill” by journalist Ronan Farrow and “Flowers in the Attic” by V.C. Andrews were all pulled.

“Girl in Pieces” by Kathleen Glasgow is about a girl using self harm to cope with trauma. It was pulled, as well as “Tornado Warning: A Memoir of Teen Dating Violence and Its Effect on a Woman’s Life,” from the Wheeler library.

Ayana Gray’s “Beasts of Prey” is a fantasy book based on African lore. Common Sense Media rated it appropriate for ages 12 and up. Sprayberry High School discarded a copy that was obtained the same month, according to records.

Lawsuit against the district

A group of students, alum, and teachers have filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Cobb County School District alleging discrimination against LGBTQ students and political persecution of educators.

Read more here: Students join discrimination lawsuit against Cobb County School District – Cobb Courier (cobbcountycourier.com)

LGBTQ-themed books acquired between January 2021 and August 2023 that were removed:

  • “Dangerous Play” by Emma Kress 
  • “Color Outside the Lines: Stories About Love” by Sangu Mandanna 
  • “Cemetery Boys” by Aiden Thomas
  • “Flamer” by Mike Curato
  • “The Black Flamingo” by Dean Atta  
  • “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George Johnson 
  • “Felix Ever After” by Kacen Callender
  • “Ace of Spades” by Faridah Abike-lyimide 
  • “Melt With You” by Jennifer Dugan 
  • “Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur 
  • “The Names We Take” by Trace Kerr 
  • “Ophelia After All” by Marie Racquel 
  • “The Passing Playbook” by Isaac Fitzsimmons 
  • “Ready When You Are” Gary Lonesbourough 
  • “Red White and Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston  
  • “Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America”
  • “Tonight We Rule the World” by Zack Smedley 
  • “As Far As You’ll Take Me” by Phil Stamper 
  • “The State of Us” by Shaun David Hutchison 
  • “How It All Blew Up” by Arvin Ahmadi
  • “Lark and Kasim Start a Revolution” by Kacen Callender
  • “Act Cool” by Tobly McSmith
  • “Both Sides Now” by Peyton Thomas
  • “Like Other Girls” by Britta Lundin
  • “The Missing Girl” Norma Fox Mazer 
  • “Unlock Your Storybook Heart” by Amanda Lovelace 
  • “Into the Real” by Zac Brewer 
  • “Hello Melancholic” by Yayoia Osawa 
  • “All Eyes On Us” by Kit Frick 
  • “Beyond the Gender Binary” Alok Vaid-Menon 

Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.