How specific book-ban requests entered an Illinois school system – from inside the district

A months-long investigation by NBC 5 Investigates has uncovered requests like these are part of a record number of requests to remove books from the shelves of schools and public libraries in the Chicago area.

NBC 5 News

About 65 miles northwest of Chicago, the town of Genoa, Illinois, has all the hallmarks of the bucolic Midwest. You wouldn’t know it from the quiet of the cornfields or the creeks here, but the local school board president has been making noise.

For years, Genoa-Kingston School Board President Matt Krueger has challenged dozens of books, asking district staff and librarians to have certain materials removed from the shelves of the district’s libraries due to their content, some of which he’s characterized as “inflammatory” and “pornographic,” according to copies of internal emails and memos obtained by NBC 5 Investigates.

Back in October 2021, Krueger sent out an email ordering school librarians and staff to “remove any and all inflammatory books, publications, literature, curriculum … in our GK schools immediately from the premises.”

His correspondence continued, writing: “There are some books which are simply so inflammatory or frankly pornographic as to cross the line as to what should be allowed in a school library … pornography is not allowed in schools by any standard.”

His memo resulted in district staff compiling a list of 79 books including titles like "Gender Queer" and other LGBTQ+ materials that NBC 5 Investigates found are frequently challenged elsewhere, along with the "The Color Purple," "Water for Elephants," "The Gossip Girl" series and John Steinbeck’s "Of Mice and Men," which was written 86 years ago.

We wanted to ask Krueger about his requests and what authority he had as board president to have district staff remove the books. After making repeated requests for an interview, Krueger declined and sent a statement to NBC 5 Investigates. We told him we planned to attend a recent school board meeting where we attempted to talk to him.

When asked directly what gave him the authority to decide what materials are appropriate, he declined to be interviewed and referred to his statement, which read:

“There are materials with sexually explicit content making their way into public schools, which is why we set up a multi-person review committee to ensure inflammatory sexually explicit pornographic material is not available to our students.”

The statement makes reference to a "multi-person review committee." The district’s former interim superintendent told NBC 5 Investigates Krueger did not have the sole authority, on his own, to remove these books.

According to the Illinois Association of School Board’s spokesperson:

“One school board member does not have the authority to make decisions or otherwise act on behalf of the board unless the board has lawfully delegated such authority to the individual member. For example, many boards designate the board president to be the media spokesperson for the board. Whether a school board is involved in the selection or removal of materials from a school library will depend on a local board’s policies. Generally speaking, boards set broad standards for a district’s library program that comply with legal requirements, but they are not involved in the day-to-day decisions regarding the selection of specific library materials. In the case of a specific objection to library material, a board may become involved as a final decisionmaker as part of an internal review procedure, again depending upon a board’s policies.”

It's not clear what happened to all those books on the list, but two years later, NBC 5 Investigates found Krueger is still making additional requests to remove certain materials.

After reading an article about a school district in Iowa that used artificial intelligence to identify books for removal, Krueger sent an email in August to his superintendent, writing: "A simple AI search identified 19 books that are inappropriate. … I would like these removed immediately due to violations of our school policy and codes on vulgarity and pornography…"

Those titles included "Beloved," "The Kite Runner," "Friday Night Lights," "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and "An American Tragedy," written 98 years ago.

A months-long investigation by NBC 5 Investigates has uncovered requests like these are part of a record number of requests to remove books from the shelves of schools and public libraries in the Chicago area.

Libraries, normally regarded as havens for learning, have increasingly become targets of protest and threats, a months-investigation by NBC 5 Investigates has uncovered.

NBC 5 Investigates found a total of 464 separate challenges to books or other materials in schools and public libraries in the Chicago area over the past decade. Most of those challenges – more than 300 – have come in the last three years.

The majority of the books being challenged – 38 percent -- involved books that cover sexual orientation or gender identity topics followed by materials that touch on race, which made up 17 percent of books challenged.

By far the most challenged book is "Gender Queer: A Memoir" whose author said the book was a way to explain to family members and friends what it’s like to be non-binary or asexual. The book does contain graphic illustrations of sex acts, which has led to protests and challenges by parents’ rights groups who have argued that it is obscene and pornographic.

The data shows the Genoa-Kingston district appears to be an outlier in some ways. In nearly ever other of the 464 local cases we found, book challenges have come from parents or organizations, such as groups of parents asking administrators in the Palatine area to “reconsider” 10 books that were in district libraries. But according to district documents, the parents didn’t have children in the district and the district opted to keep all the books on the shelves.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone with the American Library Association spoke with NBC 5 Investigates about this issue.

She said the increase in challenges began in 2021 and has accelerated “in ways that we’d never seen before. We used to get one or two reports a week, and we were starting to get four or five reports a day."

“It’s not a parent group raising a concern about a book with an educator or a librarian – it’s groups challenging 50 to 100 titles all at once,” Caldwell-Stone said. “Ninety percent of the challenges reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom in 2022 were to multiple titles. Forty percent of them were to 100 titles or more. And what that is – is that’s not a parent concerned about a book; that’s a group with a list of books they want out, often books they have not seen or even looked for.”

Illinois’ new law, which takes effect in January, will prohibit public libraries from removing materials because of someone’s personal or political objection. Those that do could face losing state grant funding.

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