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Beaufort, South Carolina, schools return most books to shelves after attempt to ban 97

Beaufort bans 5 books from school libraries
Beaufort, SC, bans 5 books from school shelves after push to ban 97 | 60 Minutes 13:24

With election season upon us, the forces of politics are pulling us apart and among the sharpest battles recently is a campaign to ban certain books from public schools. There were more than 3,000 book bans in schools last year, a thousand more than the year before. That rise is inspired, in part, by Moms for Liberty—a Florida-based conservative group that says it is fighting for the survival of America. You might expect a sympathetic ear in Beaufort, South Carolina. The county votes Republican and is home to many veterans who did fight for America. But when two people demanded the banning of 97 books, Beaufort found itself in a battle over the true meaning of liberty.    

Beaufort has a history in literature and learning. It's the hometown of the late novelist Pat Conroy, Prince of Tides, and in 1862 it opened among the first schools in the South for former slaves. Today, Beaufort County has 21,000 students and Dick Geier is vice chair of the school board.

Dick Geier: It is probably the most diverse district in the United States because we have tremendous wealth and Hilton Head and other gated communities here. And we have tremendous poverty. Half of our students are getting free and reduced lunches because their parents are qualified as being in poverty.

Geier is a retired Army colonel--a Republican—who focused on improving math and reading-- until 2022.

Scott Pelley: What was the very first notion that you had a storm coming?

Dick Geier: We got a email from a citizen saying that "These 97 books that we've heard about online that should be banned in a school. How many of those books do you have in your school?" So we checked. We had virtually all those books in the school.

Dick Geier
Dick Geier 60 Minutes

They're mostly young adult novels with minority, gay, lesbian or transgender characters. Some depict sex and violence. Most were in high school libraries, four were in classroom curricula. Reasonable people disagree about books, and that's why Beaufort already gave the last word to parents. Karen Gareis is a high school librarian after 27 years in the Navy.

Karen Gareis: So the procedure would be that it's a conversation between myself and the parent. And if they don't like the book, they have every right to say that their child can't check that book out.

Scott Pelley: And how often does a parent do that?

Karen Gareis: I have never had a parent come and complain—

Scott Pelley: Never?

Karen Gareis: To me personally about a book? No.

Gareis also pointed to this "opt-out" form, "do not allow my child to check out any school library materials…without my approval…" 

Dick Geier: Parents have the right to determine what their children are taught and what they're allowed to read. No doubt about it. But what we're having a problem with is parents that want to determine what other parents' rights are for their children to read what they want.

The board wanted to follow established procedures but a few activists, agitated by conspiracy theories, threatened librarians and board members calling them "groomers" --extreme rightwing hate speech meant to brand opponents as molesters grooming children for sex.

Dick Geier: We've had a parent come in and tell a librarian that, "You are violating a state statute by providing pornography to a minor. I'm going to the sheriff. I'm going to have you arrested," and storm out. Now that's not just happened once, that's happened multiple times at multiple schools. I even got an email saying, "OK, the sheriff said no, the solicitor said no, I'm going to the FBI!" 

School Superintendent Frank Rodriguez feared violence so he pulled the books.

Karen Gareis
Karen Gareis 60 Minutes

Karen Gareis: From someone outside looking in, it's almost obvious that most of the books hadn't been read prior to being challenged, that some other source was used to gather these things together. So when that happened, I was like, "OK." I knew we were in for a rough road.

That road began here, a book review website called BookLooks--founded two years ago by a Florida nurse. She declined an interview but told us her book reviews are written by volunteers using BookLooks' own standards. And this is where Beaufort's experience becomes a national story. Across the country, book bans are being demanded based on BookLooks' amateur, volunteer, reviews, often in the hands of Moms for Liberty.

Moms for Liberty held a national convention last summer which attracted major Republican presidential candidates. It had been only two-and-a-half years since Moms was founded as a reaction against COVID mandates. Its founders include two Florida women with school board experience; Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich. 

Tiffany Justice: The truth of the matter is, that Tina and I are disrupting the balance of power in American education. Our moms, over 100,000 members across this United States of America, are disrupting the balance of power in public education. For too long, unions have had an undue influence in the decision-making process happening in our local schools. And we see where that has gotten us-- a system that-- protects itself, and oftentimes leaves the needs of students behind. And that has to change.

Conservative, anti teacher's unions, Moms for Liberty is part of the pushback against the diversity and inclusion movement. Moms supports new Florida laws that limit lessons on race, and forbid lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity though high school.

Tina Descovich: We love teachers. My children have had the best teachers. I've had the greatest teachers that have influenced and impact me. But there are rogue teachers in America's classrooms right now.

Scott Pelley: Rogue teachers?

Tina Descovich: Rogue teachers.

Tiffany Justice
Tiffany Justice 60 Minutes

Tiffany Justice: Parents send their children to school to be educated, not indoctrinated into ideology. 

Scott Pelley: What ideology are they being indoctrinated into?

Tina Descovich: Let's just say children in America cannot read.

They often dodged questions with talking points.

Scott Pelley: You're being evasive.

Tiffany Justice: 21% of--

Scott Pelley: What ideology--

Tiffany Justice: --Hispanic students are reading on--

Scott Pelley: You're being--

Tiffany Justice: --grade level.

Scott Pelley: --evasive. 

Scott Pelley: What ideology are the children being indoctrinated into? What is your fear?

Tiffany Justice: I think parents' fears are realized. They're looking at these books where sexual discussions are happening with their children at younger and younger ages.

Tiffany Justice read from sexually explicit books written for older teens but found in a few lower schools. Most people wouldn't want them in a lower school. But in a tactic of outrage politics, Moms for Liberty takes a kernel of truth, and concludes these examples are not rare mistakes but a plot to sexualize children.

Scott Pelley: Your critics say that you have an anti-gay ideology.

Tina Descovich: That is--

Tiffany Justice: Nothing could be--

Tina Descovich: --false. That is false.

Tiffany Justice: Nothing could be further from the truth. We have gay members. I think it's an effort to really try to marginalize us as an organization because parents are coming together across racial lines, across religious lines, across all of these different ways that we see Americans being divided so often.

But voters have not "come together" for Moms for Liberty. Last year Moms endorsed 166 school board candidates, two-thirds were defeated, according to the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. Moms also faces questions about its third co-founder, conservative education activist Bridget Ziegler. She left Moms for Liberty, and now she's being asked to resign from the Sarasota school board. Last year she told police she had three-way sex with her husband and a woman. Her husband, Christian Ziegler had been accused of rape in another incident. Investigators concluded that alleged attack was, quote, "likely consensual." But Christian Ziegler was forced out as chair of the Florida Republican Party.

We wanted to know about the messages on moms' "X" account, which adopts the extremist smear with "if they don't like being called groomers, they should stop trying to groom our kids."

Scott Pelley: What are you trying to say?

Tina Descovich
Tina Descovich 60 Minutes

Tina Descovich: Well, I'm going to say that if-- we'd have to see the exact tweet. Tiffany manages our Twitter account.

So, we read more exact tweets from their account. This targets a librarian. "You want to groom our children and we're supposed to give you love?" Again, Justice and Descovich went to their talking points.

Scott Pelley: I'm just asking what do you mean by that? What do you mean by grooming?

Tiffany Justice: Parents want to partner with their children's schools. But we do not co-parent with the government.

Scott Pelley: "Grooming" does not seem like a word that you want to take on.

Tiffany Justice: You know, we did some polling. And we asked-- we really wanted to know, where are the American people on this issue of parental rights and what's happening in our schools? 

Dodging questions like those was not an option back in Beaufort, South Carolina. Critics of the book ban said they knew what "groomer" meant. And they saw it as a threat to people of color and the LGBTQ community. 

Speaker: Don't do that to these kids! They have the internet they're going to get to it anyways, what are you doing? You're wasting your time. You are only trying to make people feel bad about themselves and I am past the time where I am going to allow anybody to make me feel bad about myself!

Several parents tried to get 97 books banned
Several parents and community members tried to get 97 books banned in a South Carolina school district. 60 Minutes

Ultimately, Beaufort confronted fear and ignorance with civility and knowledge. The town asked volunteers to actually read the books. In meetings that looked like book clubs-- over the course of a year—146 community volunteers, plus teachers and librarians, discussed, deliberated and voted. Ruth-Naomi James volunteered to judge the books, she works for the schools and has a 16-year-old student.

Scott Pelley: How many of the four books have you reviewed that you felt should not be in the school system?

Ruth-Naomi James: None.

She's not a mom for liberty but, still, a liberty-minded mom.

Ruth-Naomi James: I'm a combat veteran, right? There's no way I went to Iraq thinking that when I moved back home, I would have to do this to make sure that the freedom that we fight for in this country is taken out of the hands of students and parents.

The final votes came this past December. Five books were judged too graphic in sex or violence. But 92 returned to the schools. Dick Geier says this lesson reaches beyond the classroom.

Dick Geier: Diversity brings tolerance. The more you understand what other people think and realize that what they say is important, but who they are, what their story, what their background is. The more you know that, the more you see the power of diversity. And then, be kind, and be understanding. And don't make judgments because you haven't lived their story. They have.

In the city that's lived a story of letters and learning, one book that was banned and restored was "The Fixer," a novel of antisemitism that won the Pulitzer prize. In its pages, the book's hero expresses this opinion, "There are no wrong books." "What's wrong is the fear of them."

Produced by Henry Schuster and Sarah Turcotte. Broadcast associate, Michelle Karim. Edited by Warren Lustig and Peter M. Berman.

Editor's note: 97 Books Producer Henry Schuster is a resident of Beaufort County, South Carolina. He participated on one of the book review committees before beginning to produce the report for 60 Minutes.

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