A movement to withdraw books with LGBTQ characters from elementary schools in one of the nation's wealthiest counties suffered a setback Wednesday as Northern Virginia officials voted to leave in place two books that some parents wanted removed.

A few months ago, conservative parents launched a faith-driven campaign to banish LGBTQ literature from elementary school libraries and classrooms in Loudoun County - with early success. School officials had removed at least five books with LGBTQ themes from elementary schools after parents' complaints about inappropriate content, said school district spokesman Rob Doolittle.

The books - including "Hurricane Child," which details a romance between two girls, and "The Pants Project," which features a transgender boy - have been redistributed to middle and high schools in the district, Doolittle said.

But on Wednesday evening, a three-person subcommittee of the Loudoun school board voted to prevent the removal of "Prince & Knight" and "Heather Has Two Mommies." That decision will stand for at least a year.

"It has a homosexual relationship, and I know that some parents don't agree with that," John Beatty, a subcommittee member and one of few conservatives on the school board, said at the meeting.

His argument failed to persuade fellow board members, and he was the only person to vote in favor of eliminating both books.

Charlotte McConnell, a member of the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Loudoun, welcomed the result but said damage has been done. The previous redistribution of LGBTQ books sends a message to students, she said, that "there is something wrong with you, something unnatural about who you are, and we're not going to support you in our schools."

"Every grade needs access to these books, because we know LGBTQ kids have a higher rate for suicidal ideation," McConnell said. "Books can be a lifeline."

Loudoun County Public Schools' assistant superintendent for instruction said the district has long allowed parents to critique textbooks and other materials. Ashley Ellis, the assistant superintendent, said some of the books were limited to higher grades after officials determined, unprompted, that the texts would be better suited for older students. That process of directing books to higher grades is known as "re-leveling."

"We are following our objective process," Ellis said, although she acknowledged that "re-leveling doesn't happen regularly. . . . There has definitely been a flurry of appeals [to remove books] I had not seen before."

Over the past several months, Loudoun County parents have lodged more than 60 complaints in emails, at school board meetings and through a program that allows adults to request the review and removal of books, Doolittle said. Many objections have come from parents affiliated with Parent and Child Loudoun, an advocacy group that urged families to object after Loudoun schools introduced more than 80 LGBTQ-themed books through a "diverse classroom libraries" initiative this fall.

For Parent and Child Loudoun, the earlier reassigning of some books to higher grades marked the first victory in a larger battle to eliminate LGBTQ, sexually explicit and profane texts from the school system. On Monday, members of the group gathered in a Leesburg church to denounce LGBTQ texts, saying they contravene Christian teachings and spread lies.

"The diverse books initiative is a disaster," Beatty, who attended the meeting, told dozens of assembled parents and teachers. "I ask your help with reeducation. . . . Please pray for me and for the school board in this upcoming term."

Natassia Grover, who co-founded Parent and Child Loudoun, called the redistribution of LGBTQ books "just a Band-Aid."

"These all need to go," she said.

Experts said the battle roiling Loudoun County, an increasingly diverse suburb where the median household income is roughly $140,000, is playing out across the country. Christopher Finan, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said a backlash against LGBTQ texts began building several years ago, driven by the legalization of same-sex marriage. In 2018, more than half of the 11 most commonly challenged and banned books included LGBTQ content, according to the American Library Association.

Finan said that though LGBTQ books have long drawn complaints, he thinks schools are witnessing an unprecedented increase in the number of removals.

"This is a national problem, and no one is noticing," said Finan, whose coalition is drafting a statement to raise awareness of the issue.

It's not the first time Loudoun County has faced controversy over books: In 2008, administrators pulled "And Tango Makes Three" from libraries after a staffer complained about the book, which describes the love between two male penguins. A few weeks later, facing outcry from parents and bloggers, the district reversed itself and restored the text to elementary school shelves, where it remains.

Some parents' opposition to LGBTQ-focused initiatives makes the district something of an outlier in the Washington region. In recent months, Maryland began developing a curriculum that includes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history, and Virginia legislators are considering a measurethat would enhance protections for transgender students in public schools statewide.

"Loudoun, I guess, is changing more slowly than I thought," said Melanie Starks, 40, whose two children attend a Loudoun County elementary school. "It just seems so - just, why are we still debating this? Like, really?"

School administrators have broad legal latitude to determine which books are available to different grades, said Eden Heilman, the legal director of the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The First Amendment merely bars school officials from forcing any one viewpoint on their students, she said, and does not prevent them from judging whether class material is age-appropriate.

"Re-leveling is really a gray area," Heilman said.

As the removals continue, LGBTQ advocates and some educators are coordinating protests and petitioning local officials to take action. This week, Loudoun County Latin teacher Andrea Weiskopf wrote to Schools Superintendent Eric Williams and the school board demanding that they reconsider restricting students' access to LGBTQ books.

"The school board yielded to the demands of a group whose recommendations are harmful to children," Weiskopf wrote.

During the two-hour Monday meeting of Parent and Child Loudoun, speakers denounced LGBTQ books as unsafe, "leftist propaganda" and "moral corruption."

"They've removed everything with a Christian influence . . . and replaced it with smut and porn," said Beverley McCauley, a Loudoun County resident and mother of eight. "But if we band together and we're loud enough, they have to listen."

"God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, right?" Kay Kale, also a co-founder of Parent and Child Loudoun, said at one point, spurring nods and chuckles.

On their way out, parents passed a table loaded with LGBTQ books that have been challenged or are soon to be. Each bore a homemade label, typed in black, sans-serif font.

"PRINCE & KNIGHT, 2ND GRADE," read one. "Promotes homosexual romance."

"HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES," read another, adding: "Promotes homosexuality/erases fatherhood."

At the far end of the table rested several copies of "Get Out Now: Why You Should Pull Your Child From Public School Before It's Too Late." Several parents stopped to read the back cover.

As some parents contemplate pulling their children out of the school system, other mothers and fathers are struggling to explain what is taking place inside it.

During a recent car ride, Rachel Bracken's 8-year-old son - a second-grader in Loudoun County - posed a question she found difficult to answer. He wanted to know why people were trying to ban the interesting books, with their big pictures, that he likes to read at home.

"What's so dangerous?" Bracken remembers him saying. "I don't understand why they would do that."

His mother paused. She doesn't know why, she told him. Maybe, she said, it's because they're scared.

virginia-education