A recent investigation conducted by the Washington Post, driven by the need to understand and shed light on the escalating trend of educational content criticism, has revealed that the number of school book challenges in the United States has reached an unprecedented level in 2021 and 2022.
The report unveiled that a significant proportion of these objections were driven by a small group of individuals, including Jennifer Petersen, a mom from Spotsylvania County, Virginia.
A Key Figure in the Book Challenge Phenomenon
48-year-old Jennifer Petersen has become a notable figure in the wave of book objections. After carefully examining over 24,000 pages from a variety of school books, she identified and documented excerpts from more than 1,300 pages that she believes depict sexual acts.
As a result, she filed challenges against 71 books in the Spotsylvania County Public Schools district, where one of her children is currently a student and another recently graduated.
Petersen’s actions have elicited both admiration and criticism within her community, marking her as one of the so-called “serial filers” whose repeated challenges have significantly contributed to the historic increase in school book objections.
The Criteria for Book Challenges
The Washington Post analysis revealed that the majority of book objections in the 2021-2022 school year centered around titles written by or about LGBTQ individuals or people of color.
However, Petersen’s approach differs. Her sole criterion for challenging a book is whether it contains material that, under Virginia law, is classified as sexually explicit, pornographic, or obscene.
Notably, less than a third of the titles Petersen challenged featured LGBTQ characters or protagonists of color, as per the Post’s review of her objections obtained through a records request from the Spotsylvania district.
The Impact of a Few on Many
The investigation further uncovered that the high number of book challenges was not widely distributed among many individuals.
Instead, a shocking 60% of all challenges during the 2021-2022 school year came from just 11 adults. Each of these individuals objected to dozens, and in some cases close to 100, books within their respective districts.
This small but active group of objectors has had a significant influence on the escalating trend of school book challenges in America, bringing to light the power that a few individuals can wield over the educational materials available to students.
Jennifer Petersen’s Concerns
Petersen’s question raises a noteworthy point about the line between age-appropriate educational content and material that may be considered explicit or mature for students. Her query also underscores the crux of her objections: the presence of explicit sexual material in books used within the school system.
While some might argue that such content is a reflection of real-life situations and helps students understand the complexities of relationships and human behavior, others, like Petersen, question its appropriateness for a school setting. This ongoing debate highlights the diverse perspectives surrounding the issue of what content is suitable for inclusion in educational materials.
Virginia Schools Grapple with Implementing New Law
Virginia’s recently enacted legislation, which mandates schools to notify parents when sexually explicit materials are included in classroom instruction, has ignited a deeper controversy. Some school districts have interpreted this law as a foundation for entirely removing certain books from schools.
The law, signed by Governor Glenn Youngkin, was designed to keep parents informed about the instructional materials used in schools and to offer them the option to request alternative materials for their children if those materials contain sexually explicit content.
However, it is now being cited in numerous book ban requests across the state, exhibiting the struggle of school districts to implement these new laws and the potential for unintended consequences.
A National Trend: School Book Challenges
The rise in school book challenges across America, as documented by the American Library Association, has brought attention to the ongoing debates about what material is appropriate for students.
On the one hand, some individuals echo Petersen’s concerns, arguing that certain content may be inappropriate or harmful for students and thus should be scrutinized thoroughly.
They believe in the necessity of a parental role in monitoring what their children learn and read in school, asserting that such checks are crucial in protecting the well-being and innocence of students.
On the flip side, some express concern about the potential for censorship and the stifling of diverse voices and narratives. Critics of these challenges argue that removing books from schools can limit students’ exposure to a wide range of experiences, identities, and perspectives.
They post that literature should serve as a safe space for students to explore and understand complex societal issues and that “book challenges” may impede this learning process.
Amid these differing viewpoints, school districts, educators, and parents continue to grapple with finding the right balance between ensuring age-appropriate content for students and fostering an environment of open, multifaceted learning. As the debate ensues, it underscores the importance of thoughtful and inclusive dialogue in shaping the future of educational materials and practices.
An Open Debate
These objections have not only reached historic highs but have also been largely driven by a handful of individuals, leading to divisive discussions within communities and school districts.
The surge in school book challenges in the U.S. is complex, with numerous factors and individuals at play. As the nation continues to contend with this trend, it remains to be seen what impacts these objections will have on the future of school book selections and, more broadly, on the education of American students.
This article was produced by TPR Teaching.
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Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.