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Facing book bans and restrictions on lessons, teachers are scared and self-censoring

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. School systems around the country are struggling to fill teaching positions as many choose to leave the profession due to burnout and low pay. But there's something else making life difficult for public school teachers these days - the culture wars that have flared in schools and school boards across the country as parents and political activists debate how to teach kids about race, racism, gender identity and sexuality. At least 25 states have enacted laws that impose teaching restrictions on those topics or make it easier to remove books from school libraries. That means teachers are feeling pressure from parents and administrators and sometimes facing disciplinary action or the threat of criminal prosecution if they fail to conform to new state laws and regulations.

For some perspective on the conflict and its impact, we turn to Hannah Natanson, who covers national education issues for The Washington Post and has written about the educational culture wars in Virginia, Florida and around the country. Hannah Natanson has been with The Washington Post since 2019 and was part of a team of reporters that won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for public service for the paper's coverage of the costs, causes and aftermath of the January 6 attack. Hannah Natanson, welcome to FRESH AIR.

HANNAH NATANSON: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: You know, a lot of people hear or read stories about conflicts over curricula or, you know, banning books. And while they're dramatic, I'm sure a lot of people wonder, well, how common are they, really? Are these compelling but rare? And one way to get a handle on this was a survey of 8,000 teachers across the country that you reported on. It was done by the RAND Corporation. Give us a sense of who these teachers were, what this survey was about.

NATANSON: So the survey was of a nationally representative sample of 8,000 teachers and it - from across the country. And it found that at least a quarter reported revising their instructional materials or teaching practices to limit or exclude discussions of race and gender. It also analyzed, to some extent, who these teachers were in terms of, are they teachers of color? Are they high school teachers? Are they from suburban or rural districts? And it found that some teachers were more likely than others to alter their lesson plans, and that included teachers of color, those in high school and those in suburban school districts.

DAVIES: And were these particularly teachers in states that have had raging culture wars, or were they all around the country?

NATANSON: All around the country. And one of the really interesting findings, actually, was that it didn't necessarily matter whether a teacher lived in a state that had passed a sort of restrictive law around what can be taught or not. It found that roughly one-quarter of teachers reported not understanding whether they were subject to such restrictions and that even in states that have enacted laws circumscribing lessons on race, gender, sexual orientation, just 30% of the surveyed teachers said they knew for sure that such legislation was in place.

DAVIES: Right. You've written that at least 64 laws have passed which impose some restrictions. I don't know if that number has changed since you quoted it. But these are not uniform laws, right? They're - give us a sense of the variety here.

NATANSON: So that number has almost certainly increased since I performed my analysis, which I believe was as of October 2022. Broadly, these kinds of laws - initially, the focus was more on teachings around race and American history and racism. And the laws did things like outlaw making students feel uncomfortable based on the color of their skin or implying that a student was responsible or should feel guilty for a historical event based on the color of their skin. I think we have since seen a shift a little bit more towards laws that target instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, which tracks with the shifting focus of the education culture wars.

DAVIES: It's difficult to describe the content you want to, you know, regulate. I mean, the Supreme Court years ago - I forget which justice said, I'm not sure what pornography is, but I know it when I see it. I guess this creates difficulties for teachers and administrators. Exactly what can we say and not say, right?

NATANSON: Oh, yes. And that's one of the things I hear most when I speak with teachers and administrators across the country - usually in states with these laws, but again, sometimes also in states that do not even have these laws. But teachers are just confused by the overall environment. And so they're scared, and they're self-censoring. And librarians are leaving out certain kinds of books from libraries. Teachers are skipping things like Pride Month history, even Black History Month. And this is apart from administrative or parental pressure. They're just doing it themselves because they're worried and they're confused and they're not sure what they're allowed to say or what could happen if they say it.

DAVIES: So you've got all this data. How did you follow up and put faces and voices to the story?

NATANSON: Well, based on this, to me, rather striking finding that of a nationally representative sample, it was a quarter of surveyed teachers, I decided I had to go out and find out what kinds of things teachers are cutting from their lessons. And so I, with the help of the Washington Post team, created an online submission form and wound up speaking with teachers across the country and got some very compelling, very interesting stories and, in the end, winnowed it down to about six examples from different places around the country of teachers who had been forced to cut particular items, from an essay by Mary Wollstonecraft to "Huckleberry Finn." And I spent a little time chatting with each of these teachers and learning why they cut what they cut.

DAVIES: Right. The headline on that story was "'Slavery Was Wrong' And Five Other Things Some Educators Won't Teach Anymore." Slavery was wrong was a pretty dramatic one. This is a guy, a teacher in Iowa, Greg Wickenkamp. Tell us his story and what he had changed.

NATANSON: So he was one of the first folks who replied to the form, actually. And one of the very early things I remember him sending me was this video of a conversation he had with his superintendent. And after watching that, I just knew I had to include him in my story because in this video, Greg, who - he was an eighth grade social studies teacher, and he was asking for help, for clarification from his school system, what does this new law that Iowa passed in 2021 that bars educators from teaching that the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist - he wanted to know, what does that mean for what I can and can't teach?

And so he'd been trying to get an answer to this for many months from his school administration. And eventually, he got on a Zoom call with the superintendent of his system. And he asks on the Zoom call, am I allowed to teach, for example, that slavery was wrong? And the superintendent in this video that Greg was recording at the time - and the superintendent knew he was recording and Greg shared it with me - she says, to say is slavery wrong? I really need to delve into it to see, is that part of what we can or cannot say? And I don't know that, Greg, because I just don't have that. And, you know, Greg is flabbergasted, frankly. And he wound up leaving the teaching profession at the close of that year.

DAVIES: When you hear the superintendent wrestling with this - I mean, we don't know what she thinks exactly. But I guess one of the things that tends to, you know, impose restrictions - sort of unspoken restrictions - is the natural tendency of administrators of any organization to be cautious. I don't want to create trouble. I don't want to get sued. Did you find that?

NATANSON: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, I do think administrators are caught in a very difficult position. They have these - just like teachers, they have these laws they are trying to understand and interpret in real time. And at stake can be funding for their district, as well as, personally, their jobs if parents get upset and oust superintendents, as has happened in many different districts across the country. You know, there's high stakes here. And I do think they're caught in quite a tough position.

DAVIES: You want to give us one other example of things that teachers don't think they can teach from the survey and from your conversations with teachers?

NATANSON: Yeah. One other that really stuck with me was a 12th grade English teacher in Arkansas who - Lisa Childers was her name, and she was trying to get students interested in "Educated," the memoir by Tara Westover about growing up in a survivalist Mormon family. And she was having a lot of trouble, frankly, she admitted to me, getting students interested in the book. But there was a handful of female students who were really intrigued by - whenever Westover referenced Mary Wollstonecraft, you know, the 18th century British philosopher and writer who is most well-known today for her argument for women's equality, "A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman."

And so this teacher, Lisa Childers, decides to suggest six passages of optional reading from that text. And she wanted female students to engage with this and hopefully to get them more interested in not only "Educated," but also learning more about Wollstonecraft. And what happened to Childers is an assistant principal just, through - over the course of a few weeks, through a series of really interrogatory questions, just nixed the idea before she could do it. The principal kept asking, why are you doing this? How is it connected to learning goals? Is it - why - what is the theme here?

And eventually, you know, Childers just gave up and didn't wind up assigning her students Wollstonecraft. And they just kept slogging their way through "Educated," and no one was ever very interested in the book, she said. And one thing that really stuck with me is it recalled - the whole episode - an incident in the book itself, where Tara Westover isn't allowed to read Wollstonecraft until she gets to college. And, you know, Lisa Childers' students aren't able to read that book at all.

DAVIES: Did the assistant principal say what she thought might be wrong with it? Was it framed that way?

NATANSON: The assistant principal never gave a reason for her objections. But I did obtain, from earlier that year, the same person's objection to a teacher's proposed assignment of an essay on toxic masculinity. And in that objection, this same assistant principal wrote that educators should, quote, "bring in articles of empathy and compassion rather than something that could negatively trigger our students," end quote. And I'll also note that this school system, Bryant Public Schools, had overhauled its English curricula in 2021 to eliminate books, including Anne Frank's "The Diary Of A Young Girl," because officials said students needed tales that were not overly dark and heavy, as well as - especially in the case of Anne Frank, apparently - texts that were more academically rigorous.

DAVIES: It was fascinating to hear this teacher describe this exchange with this assistant principal who kept insisting that she say exactly why this particular text had to be used, how it fit into the curricula. And she spent hours on these exchanges and finally gave up in frustration. You know, teachers have very demanding jobs. I mean, they've got to do lesson plans and they've got to grade papers. And now they have to go through all of this rigorous examination and justification of the content. It really adds a lot to their jobs. It increases burnout, I assume.

NATANSON: That's what I hear. Of many factors driving teachers from the profession, the education culture wars is certainly one of them at this point. And it manifests in different ways, from feeling like they're not trusted anymore by parents to having to do a bunch of extra work to justify what they're doing or even in preparation for feeling that they might be called upon to justify their pedagogy.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Hannah Natanson. She covers national education issues for The Washington Post. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS' "TRANSITIONS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Hannah Natanson. She covers national education issues for The Washington Post and has focused recently on educational culture wars, which have been waged in schools and school systems around the country.

So let's talk about challenges to books in school libraries. You did an analysis of - you asked for all of the book challenges in 153 school districts, which had been selected by a group which was monitoring this issue. And you looked at more than a thousand challenges. Let's look at some of the most striking findings. One involved LGBTQ content as motivators for challenges. What did it find? What did you find when you looked at these challenges?

NATANSON: So I found that a near majority - 43% - of the challenges were targeted against LGBTQ books. And - you know, which tracks with findings from the American Library Association and PEN America. In their analyses of this spike in book challenges, they initially found the focus was more on books by and about people of color or dealing with issues of race and racism. And even in my findings, that was still a substantial percentage. It was, I believe 36% of challenges were targeted against books that have characters of color or deal with issues of race or racism. But the emphasis has shifted and is shifting, and it's more and more about books with LGBTQ characters and themes.

DAVIES: It was interesting when I looked at that. It was not among the highest reasons for the challenges - given as the primary reason, that it was an LGBTQ content. But they were books that included LGBTQ characters, and a lot of the complaints were about them being sexually explicit, right?

NATANSON: Yes. So one of the sort of unique features of my analysis and one reason that I wanted to do this, read 2,500 pages of parental book complaints, was because I really wanted to get a sense why. Why are people challenging these books? And so, like you noted, you know, in 61% of cases across all challenges, the top reason or a reason listed was sexual content. And that was actually the top reason cited by challengers. As for the concerns over LGBTQ characters, that was the seventh-most common reason overall. So 18% of challenges across the board mentioned that the challenger didn't want that book available in schools because the book had a character who was transgender, non-binary, bisexual, gay, lesbian, etc.

The interesting thing, though, is that when you look at just specifically LGBTQ books and challenges against LGBTQ books - meaning books with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters - the reasons for challenging shift a little bit. So now, in those cases, the specific presence of LGBTQ characters becomes the second-most common reason cited in challenges against those books.

DAVIES: Another interesting finding about this was kind of how widely dispersed the challenges are. And it turns out they're really not, are they?

NATANSON: Yes. So one of the most interesting findings that came out of my analysis was that a group of people whom I called serial filers, which I defined as anyone who files 10 or more challenges against books in their school systems, were responsible for 60% of all challenges. But they only made up 6% of the filing population. So it's really a small handful of hyperactive people who are driving this.

DAVIES: You know, one of the things that's - you know, I was a reporter for most of my career. And I always loved the fact that it made me talk to people on all sides of an issue. And I usually found when I talked to folks who I expected to disagree with about a lot of things, I always learned things I didn't know and often understood their point of view in a different way. You went out and talked to some of these folks that are challenging books. Did you - what struck you about them and their motivations?

NATANSON: I mean, I do want to be very clear. Many of the folks I spoke with were very sincere in believing that what they were doing was protecting children. And one woman said her faith drove her to make these challenges. And a lot of them were deeply concerned about what they believe is sexually explicit and inappropriate content. And some of them did say as well that they are concerned that reading about being LGBTQ might cause their child to look into that or to investigate that more. And they felt, whether or not that's necessarily true, they want to be the ones having these conversations with their children. They want to be the ones who get to decide at what point and in what manner to discuss what they view as some of the most hot topic and sensitive societal issues.

DAVIES: One of the book challengers that's particularly notable that you spoke to is a woman named Jennifer Pippin. She's in Florida. Tell us about her.

NATANSON: So Jennifer Pippin is a mother in Florida's Indian River County, actually a founding chairman of the today very well-known parental rights activist group Moms for Liberty. And she spoke to me both about her beliefs as to how books have changed, and she spoke to me about how she files the challenges. And both of those conversations I found really interesting. For one thing, she told me that she believes that LGBTQ books on their own would be fine. But she cannot understand why they have become, as she claims they have, extremely sexually graphic in the past 10 to 13 years. And she cited the frequently challenged "Gender Queer" as an example. And that book, which was the most challenged book of 2021 and 2022, it does depict oral sex and masturbation.

And so Jennifer was contending that if the book was made without its references, for example, to a dildo, she would not be challenging it. The other thing I found fascinating about my interview with Jennifer was when she explained to me how she files these challenges. So she is one of these what I called serial book challengers in my article, meaning she filed 10 or more challenges in her district. And she does it sort of with a network of folks. So last school year, the '21-'22 school year, 68 book challenges went out to Indian River County schools under her name. And this school year, her tally is up to 251 pending challenges.

Now, she does read some of these books and files some of these challenges herself personally. But in many, many other cases, she's actually relying on a network of volunteers, sort of a Moms for Liberty book challenge subcommittee. And it's about 20 mothers, fathers and grandparents who help her, she said. And each of these people spend five to 10 hours a week hunting for problematic books in the school library, catalog by researching keywords like incest, rape, pedophilia. And they will then look through the book or read the book, bring their findings to Pippin. And then Pippin will send out the challenges to her school district in her own name. And she said this strategy is meant to protect the other members from public exposure, professional retaliation and harassment, which she said she herself has faced.

DAVIES: Let me take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Hannah Natanson. She covers national education issues for The Washington Post. She'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "TALLAHASSEE JUNCTION")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. We're speaking with Hannah Natanson, who covers national education issues for The Washington Post. She's done extensive reporting on the culture wars in schools and school boards as parents and political partisans debate how to teach kids about race, racism, gender identity and sexuality. At least 25 states have enacted laws that impose teaching restrictions on those topics and make it easier to remove books from school libraries.

I want to talk about kind of the origins of these culture wars. To what extent did the parents' movements that are waging these battles emerge from conflicts over COVID-19 restrictions?

NATANSON: So I want to be clear and say that debates about what education should be are not a new phenomenon in America. But the political nature and the level of legislative action and sort of the level of cohesive organization on social media and now in groups like Moms for Liberty - that, I am told by historians, is somewhat new. And so this most recent wave, it certainly did come out of the coronavirus pandemic. And so what happened was, as we all will recall, schools shut down and everyone was anxious and confused and worried. And parents began to organize on social media, especially on Facebook, to discuss what was going on and to figure out next steps.

And what perhaps started as an attempt to just get more information and learn from each other and get tips about how to manage the suddenly online nature of school learning sort of pretty rapidly wound up coalescing two groups of a more political nature where parents became upset about, first, school closures, and there was a push that pretty rapidly wound up splitting along left and right political lines to either keep schools closed or to reopen them. Then, as schools did begin to reopen, the debate became more about, do we have required masking? Do we have required vaccination? And again, you've got a left-right divide that's spilling out where left-wing parents tend to be more in favor of pandemic safety health measures such as masking, whereas right-wing parents might be more disposed to advocate against such measures.

And these groups on Facebook and other social media outlets that had found each other are, at this point, very activated, getting more and more organized. And so they're really primed to spill into next areas of controversy, including, initially, what was labeled critical race theory, which is, at this point, a conservative catchall term describing teachings about race that they dislike or believe are politically motivated, although initially, it was a college-level academic framework that explores the nature of systemic racism in the United States. But it has become transmogrified over the course of these debates. And so you have these groups first latching on to those kinds of issues, and now, more recently, issues of what and how we teach about LGBTQ identities.

DAVIES: I wonder to what extent these challenges to curricula and books by conservative parents were rooted in part on them seeing their kids' lessons at home, on Zoom, and being alarmed by what their kids were hearing?

NATANSON: Oh, absolutely. The other thing about the era of online learning was that for the first time, in a lot of cases, parents are getting a direct view of what their children's lessons are. And so in some cases, you have parents who are sitting there and they're like, what is this? I don't agree with this. I feel that it is unduly focused on racial unity or disunity, or it's just incorporating race in a lesson where we don't need it.

DAVIES: You look at the community of Mentor, Ohio, and look at the culture wars there involving the local school district. You want to just give us a little bit of a profile? Describe the state of the battles in that school district.

NATANSON: So at this point in Mentor, Ohio, there are two groups or two camps that are very rigidly opposed. You've got the more left-leaning support public education in Mentor and the more right-leaning concerned Mentor taxpayers. And these groups were born of the pandemic, as happened in so many districts, where the initial split was over issues such as school closures and mask wearing, but it has since become an all-encompassing battle over things like, how do we teach about race? How do we teach about gender? How do we do about sexual orientation? It's even spilling into things like, do we issue a levy that will raise money for the school system? And parents are just lining up on either side of pretty much every issue by these two groups. And I went out to Mentor to report on this fissure, and you can literally see it at the board meetings.

So for every single board meeting, even the, quote-unquote, "boring" ones, as they were described to me by the parents, both groups show up. I mean, I'm talking about these meetings where they're just talking about pension plans for bus drivers or something like that. It's not a hot-button issue that these parents are directly weighing in on, but each group shows up to every school board meeting. And they sit on either side of the room and you've got people in both groups feverishly scribbling notes because at this point, they don't trust anyone. They don't trust the school board. They don't trust each other, and they don't trust what's going on with their children.

DAVIES: Yeah, five-member school board, and I think each side has one representative on the board and others want to run. So it's - they're truly engaged. You know, the striking thing about this when I read your story was that you interviewed activists on both sides of this, and it seemed like everybody hated the conflict. They resented all the time they had to put into attending meetings and monitoring instruction and policy, but couldn't abandon it, just couldn't come to an agreement.

NATANSON: Yeah. That was one of my biggest takeaways from these interviews. I mean, I came into the town, I was determined to talk to people on all sides. And the astonishing thing to me, as I kept going with my reporting, was how similar so many of these conversations wound up being. You know, I had one of the founders of the concerned taxpayers group, which is the more right-leaning group, tell me, my marriage suffers. My job suffers. I hate going to board meetings. I hate sitting on one side and having this group on the other.

And then I had a member of the support education group, the left-leaning group, tell me, I'm consumed on a Tuesday night with these board meetings. I'm not paying attention to my children. It feels like we're all losing. It really does. And that particular line, that feeling that we're all losing, that came up again and again because in every single interview I would ask, are you winning? Is the other side winning? Who's winning? And the answer from every single person I asked was, no one's winning. We're all trapped.

DAVIES: Wow. I wonder if when your story came out, anybody read that and said, is there something we could do differently? Did you do any follow-up?

NATANSON: I did. I checked in 'cause one of my hopes was that it - the story might allow each side to see each other in perhaps a new light or at least recognize similarities in their travails. And I will say that, you know, both sides actually quite appreciated the article. I got positive feedback because they felt that on each side that they had been portrayed in a human way and that, you know, they were able to see, at least for a second, the other side being portrayed in a human way, too. But within, I think, a week or two after my story came out, I was getting messages from both sides about more of the same, more fights at school board meetings. Someone was complaining about some nasty social media comments that they were getting. And I will say social media was cited by everyone here as a particularly frustrating, infuriating factor that made it easier to dehumanize their opponents and to themselves be dehumanized. And from what I could tell, I don't really think much progress has been made.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Hannah Natanson. She covers national education issues for The Washington Post. We will continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with Hannah Natanson, who covers national education issues for The Washington Post and has recently been writing about culture wars in schools and school boards across the country.

You know, you've written that, you know, more than 60 laws have been passed which restrict curricula and allow books to be removed. And I'm wondering what kinds of - you know, as these laws are passed and then, you know, state education agencies or local school boards have to promulgate regulations to implement the, you know, the requirements about what can and can't be taught, what are the challenges or threats this presents to teachers?

NATANSON: So it can depend on the state and the district pretty heavily in terms of what the consequences are. The way it's often been described to me, both in terms of rules for teachers and curricula, is it's a set of nesting dolls. You have the largest nesting doll of the state, which sets policy. Within that, you have the second nesting doll of the district which interprets, the state-level policies. And then even within that, you have sort of the specific teacher at their school with their principal who might interpret X, Y and Z differently.

Now, I will say historically, there's been more latitude than there appears to be now in terms of teachers feeling that their punishment or their - the standards for their conduct is determined locally. Because what you have - and I did an analysis in October of 2022 looking at this - you have a rash of laws that are being passed across the country that are reshaping what teachers can say and do and what will happen to teachers who err against these laws. And so punishments can include something like, you know, the suspension of your teacher's license or the questioning of your teacher's license or fining the district funds, state funds, costing them state funds.

But one new trend that I wrote about recently which has a lot of school teachers and school librarians especially concerned is the passage of these very broad, very vaguely worded laws that impose imprisonment sentences, so months in prison or tens of thousands in fines on school employees, including librarians and teachers, who provide obscene or harmful to minors material to students.

DAVIES: You know, another impact of all this that you have written about is the amount of time that school districts have to spend responding to extensive public record requests from activist groups. Tell us about that.

NATANSON: Yes. It's not every district, right? But in some cases, it's really ballooned. And you've got records requests coming in that are just tens of thousands of pages and requiring months and months of effort. And in some cases, you know, you have districts that don't necessarily have a dedicated person just to manage record request responses who is being forced to spend weekends, after work hours on these issues because they're required, usually by state law, to comply with records requests. So they have to legally do this.

And you have parents or parent groups or activist groups that are doing things like requesting every email that mentions race between September 2020 and September 2022. And, you know, part of the problem is - think about it - what kinds of emails might mention race? Yes, perhaps the kind the parent is looking for, but you also - in one district, I remember an administrator was telling me that particular kind of request will also pull in all the logistical coordination emails about track meets.

DAVIES: Right.

NATANSON: And so that just balloons to tens of thousands of emails, and it takes a very long time.

DAVIES: Now, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights did conclude that book removal, I think in one school district in Georgia, may have created a hostile environment for students and communicated this to the district. What's the impact of this?

NATANSON: That was an interesting case. So the Education Department was investigating Forsyth County schools for pulling nearly a dozen books, many of which were by or about Black or LGBTQ people. And the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights concluded that the removal of these books might have created a hostile environment for students, potentially violating their civil rights. And to remedy the situation, the Education Department is requiring that district to take measures to support students and address the removals with them.

And it's interesting. It could - this case could affect how administrators across the country are managing book removal requests, given they are now cognizant that the Biden administration's education is looking at this issue and seems willing to say things in this relatively untested legal area of what do book removals legally mean? What do they mean in terms of discrimination? What do they mean in terms of creating a hostile environment? So this is not a super strong ruling, but it is a step in that direction.

And so I do think, certainly, school administrators are paying attention to it. There is actually another civil rights investigation going on into a Texas school district which is testing a novel legal argument that removing books that represent certain categories of students - Black students, LGBTQ students - could constitute discrimination. And if the Biden administration in that case upholds that idea, that could force districts actually to stock more titles featuring LGBTQ characters.

DAVIES: Is it clear that this finding from the Department of Education can mandate a district to change?

NATANSON: No. The finding - the way the finding worked out, basically it was suggesting some steps towards the idea that the Education Department is broadly saying, if you do this, we can - remove books, we can find that you have created a hostile environment. But the actual finding in that case was specifically narrowed and tailored to that Georgia school district with penalties only for that district. So it's more of a shot across the bow than it is a binding ruling in any way.

DAVIES: The Justice Department, I believe, at some point recognized the fact that this - that these culture wars can create danger for school administrators and teachers. Is that something that you're seeing? Are people getting threats? Are people leaving the profession for it - because of it?

NATANSON: Yes, I've done stories about both of those things. And I will say it's hard - very, very, very hard - to get any sense of absolute numbers. So I can't tell you how many. I did attempt at one point to do an analysis of how many teachers had been forced out due to culture wars issues or conflicts that made them feel unsafe, and it was very difficult to get that data. I had to rely on news reports, which capture a small fraction. But that at least indicated that it is widespread. To some extent, it's in nearly every state, and it's affecting teachers of all political stripes.

But I will say the anecdotes - again, I don't have hard data, but the anecdotes that I've heard are somewhat chilling. I did a story a while back about board members who are facing things like being trailed to their cars, having people show up outside their homes, receiving death threats, you know, via voicemail and via snail mail. And you do have people choosing to leave the profession. You have, certainly, school board members quitting. You have teachers leaving. You have teachers getting fired.

And I think one case that really sticks with me was I spent time with a teacher in Florida who is a woman who is married to a woman, loved being a teacher, and with - it wasn't due to harassment in that case, but with the passage of a law in Florida that forbid instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation between kindergarten through third grade, this teacher felt that her position had just become untenable. I mean, she has a wife. What if a student asks her, how was your weekend, and she had spent that weekend gardening with her wife? Can she say that? Can she confirm that she's, in fact, married to a woman? She just - this woman felt that it was no longer possible to be herself and to be a teacher. And so she did leave the profession.

DAVIES: Well, Hannah Natanson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NATANSON: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Hannah Natanson covers national education issues for The Washington Post.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATO WAYUHI SONG, "REZ DOGS THEME")

DAVIES: Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews two new releases from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and saxophonist Henry Threadgill. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALFREDO RODRIGUEZ'S "VEINTE ANOS (TWENTY YEARS)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.