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South Carolina school district reviews, returns dozens of books after ban attempt

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

Beaufort, South Carolina, is proud of its literary heritage, the home to the late author Pat Conroy and his stories of the Lowcountry. So, when a few parents and residents pushed to ban nearly a hundred books from public school libraries, there was fierce debate. Librarians and educators were threatened and accused of providing pornography to minors. That led the school superintendent to temporarily pull dozens of books from middle and high school shelves while they were reviewed. 

Those in favor of a ban wanted 97 books removed from schools in Beaufort County, saying they were concerned about language, depictions of sexual assault, drug use, violence and sex. The district already had a policy in place allowing parents to keep their children from reading certain books, explained high school librarian Karen Gareis, who pointed to the county's opt-out form.

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

Gareis said she never had a parent come to her and complain about a book. 

The school board was blindsided when two people filed complaints calling for bans, school board vice chair Dick Geier said. 

Dick Geier
Dick Geier 60 Minutes

"Parents have the right to determine what their children are taught and what they're allowed to read. No doubt about it," Geier said. "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."

What happened in Beaufort after the complaints?

The school board wanted to follow the 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.

"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 happened once, that's happened multiple times at multiple schools," Geier said. "I even got an email that said, 'OK, the sheriff said no, the solicitor said no, I'm going to the FBI! And if the FBI doesn't do it, I'm going to the federal district attorney!' I said, 'Go ahead.' Have a good day. Talk's cheap. I'm tired of the threats. Come and get me."

School Superintendent Frank Rodriguez feared violence, so he pulled all the books. A review team later found that one of the 97 books on the list had never even been on school library shelves at all.

The books include best sellers "The Kite Runner'' and "The Handmaid's Tale." Many on the list are young adult novels with minority, gay, lesbian or transgender characters. Some depict sex or violence. The books were mostly on shelves in high schools, with some in local middle schools. Four of the books were part of high school curricula. 

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

Karen Gareis boxed up copies of the listed books in her library at Bluffton High School. 

"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," Gareis said. "And the list is not unlike other lists that have been floating around other districts and been challenged, not in South Carolina but elsewhere as well. So when that happened, I was like, 'OK.' I knew we were in for a rough road."

Why some people are pushing for book bans

Nationwide, there were more than 3,000 instances of books banned in schools last year, according to PEN America. That rise in book bans has been driven, in part, by the self-described parental rights movement.

The book ban movement arrived in Beaufort in 2022, Geier said.

"We got an 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," he said. "We had virtually all those books in the school."

Two county residents, one of them a parent and a former member of a group called Moms for Liberty, presented the list of 97 books. It was based on a website called BookLooks, founded in 2022 by another former member of Moms for Liberty.  BookLooks is run by a Florida nurse who said via email that volunteers rate books on the site using BookLooks' standards, including those for "explicit sexual nudity" and "gender ideologies."

Nationwide, confrontations with school boards have been driven largely by the BookLooks ratings often promoted by Moms for Liberty volunteers.

What is Moms for Liberty

No organization has been more prominent in the "parental rights" movement than Moms for Liberty — a Florida-based conservative group. Its motto is "We do not co-parent with the government."

Moms for Liberty was founded in 2021 by two Florida women with school board experience, Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich. Conservative education activist Bridget Ziegler, who's since left Moms for Liberty, also co-founded the group.

Tiffany Justice
Tiffany Justice 60 Minutes

Tiffany Justice, one of the group's founders, told 60 Minutes they're "disrupting the balance of power in American education." 

Challenging books which they feel are sexualizing children is just part of their platform. They are against teachers' unions; social and emotional learning programs; and the teaching of critical race theory in schools. 

"Parents send their children to school to be educated, not indoctrinated into ideology," said Justice, who added that most public schools are failing at their mission of teaching children to read at grade-level.

"Our moms, over 100,000 members across these United States of America, are disrupting the balance of power in public education," Justice said in a 60 Minutes interview. "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."

Justice read some sexually explicit lines from books found in schools. Justice and Descovich pointed to them as evidence that some teachers have an agenda to corrupt children.

Descovich said in an interview with 60 Minutes that "there are rogue teachers in America's classrooms right now."

In the interview, Justice also pushed back against critics who says the group has an anti-gay ideology, "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."

Charges of grooming

In the 60 Minutes interview, Justice and Descovich were asked about messages from the Moms for Liberty X account. One posting said "If they don't like being called groomers, they should stop trying to groom our kids."

When asked what they were trying to say, Descovich replied, "I'm going to say that if-- we'd have to see the exact tweet. Tiffany manages our Twitter account."

Tina Descovich
Tina Descovich 60 Minutes

Another tweet targets a school librarian profiled in a magazine article.  "You want to groom our children and we're supposed to give you love?"

When asked what they meant by grooming, Justice replied, "Parents want to partner with their children's schools. But we do not co-parent with the government." 

Local chapters of Moms for Liberty set their own priorities, Justice and Descovich said, including whether and how they approach pushing for the removal of books from public schools. 

Reviewing 97 books

In Beaufort, the proposed bans were largely met by critics who said these books taught valuable lessons to students. Some also said the mass banning of books was an attempt to erase stories about people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. 

Beaufort asked residents to read and review all the books. Over the course of a year, 146 community members — along with teachers, librarians and educators — discussed, deliberated and voted on what had now become 96 books, because of that one on the list that turned out to not be in school libraries. 

Each book was read and discussed by a panel, that then voted whether to return it to schools. Every decision had to then be ratified by the Beaufort County School Board, which included Geier. 

The final panels met in late November and the last school board vote took place in December. Five books were banned, and the rest were returned to library shelves. Some were approved to be in middle and high schools, while others were approved for high schools. 

Geier said Beaufort learned a lesson: diversity is important.

Ruth-Naomi James, a combat veteran who works for the schools and has a 16-year-old, called the review process "phenomenal." She served on four panels and voted to return each book to school library shelves. 

"To take away the power that books give you to transform the world that they live in is asinine. 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 [isn't] taken out of the hands of students and parents," the mom said.

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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