A conservative activist who teaches parents how to get books removed from school libraries has won her first major victory at a right-leaning Southern California school board, setting the district up for a fresh legal battle with the state.
On Nov. 16, Chino Valley became the first school district in the country to enact what critics call “book banning” policy that allows any community member to challenge “sexually obscene” materials in school libraries. The policy dictates that the school board, rather than principals and educators, gets to make the final decision on whether to remove a book.
But the board’s latest policy was not written by the school board, a local parent, or someone from the community. Instead, it was authored by a long-time conservative activist called Karen England, executive director of “pro-family” advocacy group, the Capitol Resource Initiative, which for decades has pushed for right-wing state legislation in California and is a close friend of Jack Hibbs, Chino Valley’s local extremist Christian pastor.
England’s latest project is Take Back The Classroom, a website where she identifies “obscene” books in school districts all over the country, offers webinars to parents and community members seeking to get them removed, and solicits donations to further her cause. In a toolkit available on her site, England says she “leads the fight to expose and eliminate progressive ideologies in the school setting. This includes CRT, SEL and graphic, inappropriate sexual education.” (CRT refers to Critical Race Theory, and SEL to “Social-Emotional Learning.”)
The kit offers step by step instructions on how to challenge a book in a school library, including navigating school library websites, filing Freedom of Information Act requests, and tracking book challenges. It also encourages people to try and get policy at the school board level to take the decision over books out of the hands of principals and educators.
It is England’s policy that the Chino Valley school board passed, a significant victory for her burgeoning campaign, and she now plans to massively expand her operation to hundreds more school districts.
In an impassioned Nov. 16 public meeting prior to voting through the new policy, the right-leaning Chino Valley school board, led by chairperson Sonja Shaw, heard testimony from community members opposing the change.
The district’s student representative, Chloe Kubeldis, cautioned the board over the new policy.
“This proposed revision is not going to protect students, as it claims, but will rather limit their access to sources of education based off of the whims of anyone in the district,” Kubeldis said. “The ambiguous term ‘sexually obscene’ is far too vague to be left in the revision as it leaves far too much space for interpretation. Any person in this community has the ability to walk into a school library, or into a teacher’s classroom library and report any book that they wish to be taken off the shelves. According to the proposed revision, books that are reported must be removed almost immediately. So under these guidelines a completely innocent book may be taken off the shelves for over a month, based solely on random accusations.”
“This policy ends up doing much more harm than good. I urge the board to take the opinions of students in this district seriously, as it is our education being impacted,” she finished.
It is not the first time that Shaw and the Chino Valley school board have made headlines for a controversial policy. The district, located about 35 miles east of Los Angeles, is already being sued by California’s attorney general Rob Bonta over their “gender disclosure” policy that requires educators to inform parents if a student wants to use a different pronoun, use a different bathroom, or play on a different sports team.
Shaw was elected last November with support from a local megachurch and its Christian nationalist pastor, Jack Hibbs. She has made no bones about her opposition to Sacramento politicians like Newsom, telling a crowd gathered at the state Capitol in August that they were engaged in a “spiritual battle” for kids.
“Today we stand here and declare in his almighty name that it’s only a matter of time before we take your seats and we be a God-fearing example to the nation, how God is using California to lead the way,” Shaw told the crowd, “We already know who has won this battle. You will be removed in Jesus’s name! You, Satan, are losing.”
Hibbs himself mobilized members of his congregation at Calvary Chapel Chino Hills to support the book policy authored by England. A flier distributed by Hibb’s political organization, Real Impact, instructed congregants to “advocate for a policy that would remove vulgar and pornographic books from library shelves and classrooms” at an Oct. 19 school board meeting.
England, who lives in Tennessee, has spent decades advocating in Sacramento for various conservative causes, including lobbying against gay marriage, LGBT-inclusive sex education, abortion rights, and, one occasion, opposing a bill that banned the corporal punishment of children.
Speaking at the public meeting, Bethany Saunders-Medina, a parent in the district, drew attention to England’s influence on the new policy.
“Your policy is lifted almost verbatim from a similar policy being pushed by Karen England, who is an unelected extremist from Tennessee,” Saunders-Medina said. “I don’t live in Tennessee. I don’t want someone from Tennessee deciding what opportunities my children have in this school district. Your platform is all about ‘parent rights’ but as a local parent who actually lives in this district, all I see are rights for my children to have a rounded education taken away one by one.”
“There is no pornography in our schools,” said another parent who identified herself as ‘Jessica S’. “What we have here is puppeteering, and the people pulling the strings are Karen England and Jack Hibbs.”
In an email to the Daily Beast, chairperson Shaw denied England and Hibbs had orchestrated the new policy.
“Some books were sexually explicit and brought to my attention,” Shaw said, “I addressed the issue and strengthened an existing policy. That’s a win. If anyone is puppeteering, please look at Sacramento—those people are the ones creating new laws every step of the way to edge parents out.”
England says school libraries across the nation are filled with pornography that would shock any right-minded parent.. That’s what she told pastor Hibbs in an appearance on his podcast Real Life With Jack Hibbs last month. In his introduction, Hibbs described England as a “warrior” and a “hero” who was battling the forces of darkness.
Hibbs told listeners that in the “last days” the Bible tells us to watch for “doctrines of demons” teaching “spiritual wickedness.” Teachers and educators, he suggested, are spreading evil teachings through books that target children.
“For those things to manifest themselves, for invisible entities to show themselves, they use human beings. And they have humans promote their doctrine,” Hibbs said. “Now state tax dollars, your tax dollars, federal tax dollars are funding what I do believe is this: the resurrection of ancient pagan religions being lived out in our school boards and in our city councils, and in our school board education system today. Because it’s always after the children, always, and it’s always pornographic.”
“I’ve got a stack of porn in front of me,” Hibbs continued, gesturing towards a pile of books stacked by England. “And we’re going to dive into it with our very special guest. ”
England and Hibbs went on to discuss the books, which included A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, and Looking For Alaska by John Green. All three titles made the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of the top 13 banned books of 2022.
The ALA is a particular bugbear for England. In a downloadable toolkit aimed at parents on her website she says the non-profit, which promotes libraries and library education, is “not on your side.”
“The ALA’s goal is to use your child in their social experiment that is meant to indoctrinate the next generation,” the toolkit reads, “The ALA and their many allies manipulate young people with deceptive and immoral subject matter.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, England was keen to emphasize that unlike other conservative book campaigns which have targeted books with LGBT content, her campaign was entirely focussed on obscenity.
“We found that a lot of people didn’t believe some of this stuff was in their schools,” England said, “And so that’s when we started to embark on setting up a website where we show the actual books and the verbiage or pictures and the specific school district it’s in. That allows parents to be fully informed if they want their kids to have access to this stuff or not.”
“We are doing the sexually explicit, pervasively vulgar books. So we are not focusing on the classics or something that has a character we might not agree with. We are talking about erotica, sexually explicit pictures, sex acts being described,” she continued.
This strategy change is an important one for groups aiming to get books removed from school libraries. In a webinar called “Take Action Find and Remove Porn in Schools” which England led in October, she discussed First Amendment protections afforded to libraries, and how to work around them.
“You may not remove a book from a public school just because of a political viewpoint. As much as I don’t like that, and I don’t want to have the transgender stuff being introduced for a five-year-old, you cannot get it removed just because it is transgender,” England told attendees.
Nonetheless, several of the books identified as sexually explicit by England’s Take Back The Classroom deal with transgender and queer identity for teens, including Trans+: Love, Sex, Romance, and Being You by Kathryn Gonzales and Karen Rayne, They/Them/Their: A Guide To Nonbinary and Genderqueer Identities by Eris Young, and Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe.
On Hibb’s podcast, England drew attention to a series of QR codes included in Trans+: Love, Sex, Romance, and Being You which she said led to a Planned Parenthood page.
“They are so sly—because Satan is very crafty—in how they do this,” England told Hibbs, “They’re after our kids, pastor Jack. And you’ve heard them, especially this last year, whether it’s the drag queens, or at the gay pride parades, we’re after your kids.”
While most of the books on Take Back The Classroom are aimed at middle schoolers and high schoolers, England has included one picture book for elementary readers on her list of offensive material. The Big Bath House by Kyo Maclear, which Penguin Random House describes as “A joyful celebration of Japanese cultural traditions and body positivity as a young girl visits a bath house with her grandmother and aunties.”
England does not see the book as a celebration of Japanese culture but as a form of “grooming.”
“It gives [kindergarteners] the impression that bathing naked, a bunch of kids with grown women—and I don’t even know that a kindergartner would even see it as specific as just women—that is a normal acceptable thing,” England told The Daily Beast. “If they’re constantly bombarded with messages that kids are naked and bathing with people all the time [..] I believe it sets them up and it preps for someone who would want to take advantage of them.
Another important shift for England is to get away from the language of “book banning.”
“I’d like everyone to get it out of their head, those words,” she told attendees of her October webinar. “That isn’t what we’re doing. These books are still available. They’re still available down the hall. They’re available in your county library, they’re available on Amazon. It’s whether or not they’re curated and available in our local school.”
Kasey Meehan, the Freedom to Read director at PEN America, disputes England’s argument.
“To say that removing access to a book isn’t a book ban—it most certainly is,” Meehan told The Daily Beast. “Schools and school libraries have been protected places for students and accessing information for accessing books, and the idea that you can restrict and remove books because of narrow ideological preferences doesn’t mitigate the fact you’re still removing access. And that in itself is a book ban.”
Meehan also pushed back on England’s assertions that she is only advocating for parents being able to “curate” books in the way librarians currently do.
“That a single parent or a single person could have a sense of what’s best for an entire school community, whether it’s in the book removal or the book review site is quite alarming,” Meehan said. “How are these books identified? What’s the evaluation rubric here? It’s all quite subjective. Whereas you have librarians, professionally-trained librarians, who can fall back a massive industry of reviews.You have the National Book Foundation, the School Library Journal, the ALA, Kirkus Reviews […] there is a robust set of industry guidelines there and supports and reviews and assistance that are provided to help librarians make good choices for students in schools.”
Meehan’s comments were echoed by Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
“Those who would elevate politics over the education of children are now, tragically, offering organized campaigns to censor the books that offer hope and reflect the lives of those persons who often do not have a voice in society,” Caldwell-Stone told The Daily Beast. “While we support parents’ ability to guide their child’s reading, we firmly believe that no one parent or group should be deciding what other families’ children read.”
England’s initiative comes as school board candidates backed by groups like Moms For Liberty fared badly at the ballot box early this month, suggesting public opinion does not favor book banning initiatives.
Lisa Greathouse, a local mom and former Chino Valley school board candidate, told the school board prior to the vote on the new book banning policy that she hoped they saw those results as a warning.
“It seems that passing policies that target marginalized transgender students and ban books aren’t as popular as you all thought it was,” Greathouse told the board, “Looking forward to this community restoring sanity and decency and a focus on education instead of cultural wars to our school board in 2024.”
The post Meet the Woman Training Parents How to Get Books Banned appeared first on The Daily Beast.