The network behind the books pulled from Beaufort Co. schools, and the one fighting back

The CliffsNotes version of how books were pulled for review from Beaufort County school libraries happened in two days: One day a parent read a sex scene from a book at a school board meeting, the next day 97 titles were pulled.

But, like any English teacher will tell you, the story goes much deeper. It involves a network of community members that campaigned for school board candidates endorsed by parent group Moms for Liberty. Though, the candidates in Beaufort County have since been removed from the conservative nonprofit’s sponsorship page.

About two hours away, in Berkeley County, six Moms for Liberty candidates won seats on the school board in the Nov. 8 election. They ran on “parental rights,” and in their first board meeting voted to fire the district’s first Black superintendent, terminate the district’s lawyer, ban critical race theory from the classroom and set up a book review committee to filter out inappropriate content.

In nearby Charleston County, five Moms for Liberty candidates won seats on the school board.

“If you were not able to tell by the school board election last week, parents have spoken up,” Beaufort County parent Joe Castagnino said in front of the board Nov. 14. “They do not want this material in our county and in our schools, and we are electing people that will put children first. Parents will also remember this when it comes time to elect our board members in the 2024 election cycle.”

However, parents, community members and non-profit organizations that oppose the books being taken out of schools are coming together to make their voices heard, too.

Forming a network

Conservative parent groups started organizing in Beaufort around the time the pandemic started, according to Castagnino.

South Carolina schools were closed from March 2020 through the end of the year due to worries about the spread of coronavirus. Students went back to in-person instruction during the 2021-22 school year and the county navigated mask mandates, online instruction and quarantines.

“One of the other things that unified the parents as well, even before all this [book] stuff, is parents are still [mad] about the COVID mandates,” Castagnino said. “And what they did to the kids, that that was the first step that unified a lot of these people.”

Castagnino moved to Bluffton from New Jersey in July 2021, but said that a network of like-minded community members was already formed, opposed to how the county handled COVID-19.

The network of parents formed through run-ins at the school board, and gatherings and social media group pages for organizations such as the Young Republicans Club, Greater Bluffton GOP and Moms for Liberty.

“I don’t know that there’s these clandestine, behind the door meetings. Matter of fact, I know there’s not,” former Beaufort County Council member Mike Covert said. He said that “grandparents, parents and concerned citizens” organize through Facebook, Twitter and group chats on the messaging service Signal.

The district used a list submitted by Covert to pull nearly 100 books from schools in October. Covert is a GOP member and outspoken about his politics through his YouTube channel “Beaufort County’s House of Cards.”

On election night, Nov. 8, Covert had far-right political commentator Corey Allen on his podcast along with the chair of Moms for Liberty in Colleton County.

Colleton County is directly above Beaufort County. That night, three Moms for Liberty candidates won a seat on the Colleton school board.

Allen runs a blog called the “Overton Report,” “to shine a light on corruption, fraud, cronyism, and to show how ridiculous the philosophies of leftism are,” according to his website. On Aug. 23, he posted a video condemning the book “Stamped” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds from being taught in schools after a parent in Pickens County filed a complaint.

The Pickens County school board voted to remove the book from their schools in September.

Covert’s list of books he submitted to the Beaufort County school board matched that of local Moms for Liberty member Ivie Szalai exactly, except for the addition of “Stamped.”

“It’s just all of these different people that kind of work together,” Castagnino said. “It’s a little frustrating, because I would see stuff that [other counties like Charleston’s] groups are doing. And I’m like, man, why can’t we do that?”

The network of community members and parents started emailing the school board about books they believe don’t belong in schools since August 2022, nearly three months before the district started the review process, according to Castagnino.

“This started out because we were looking into critical race theory stuff that was in the schools,” Castagnino said, explaining that only then did they find “pornographic” material.

Szalai said she didn’t compile her list until October of this year.

They also used this network to sync on candidates for whom to vote. Moms for Liberty Beaufort, which has 167 Facebook members, endorsed their two candidates without the candidates’ permission, according to Szalai. She was against the public endorsement despite being a member of the group.

“In some cases, that can be a very big plus for a candidate to be endorsed by Moms for Liberty and other cases it could be a detractor,” she said. Moms for Liberty publicly announced their endorsements of Victor Ney and Elizabeth Hey the day after the election, but have since removed their names from their endorsement page.

Ney confirmed to The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette that he did not give permission for an endorsement, and Hey couldn’t be reached for comment.

Having to ‘react and respond’

Community members fighting against books being removed from libraries weren’t able to start in August, like those trying to get them taken off shelves did.

Not because they wouldn’t have wanted to, but because they didn’t know it was happening.

“We don’t typically know about them until they become public or until a librarian is told to remove materials from the shelves so we are having to react and respond,” said Jace Woodrum, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina.

At the forefront of the reaction and response is ACLU Legislative Advocate Josh Malkin.

A Beaufort County parent informed Malkin about books being removed, and he made the nearly two and a half-hour drive down interstate 26 to speak at the Nov. 1 school board meeting.

Just days earlier, on Oct. 27, the ACLU launched “Freedom to Read SC.” It’s working with 17 other statewide organizations to “defeat unconstitutional efforts to ban books from school and public libraries,” according to a press release.

The 18 statewide organizations that compile the “Freedom to Read SC” coalition.
The 18 statewide organizations that compile the “Freedom to Read SC” coalition.

“The idea of ‘Freedom to Read’ is for these statewide organizations with these expansive and localized networks to provide resources and support to folks who are dealing with these bans and attempted bans as it happened on the ground,” Malkin said.

There is a larger Facebook group, but locally in Beaufort County, organization takes the form of an email chain: “Beaufort vs. Book Bans.” Community members are on this chain with Malkin to stay informed and share resources.

“We are just trying to gather people together to use our voices,” parent and former school library media specialist Amanda Mcteer said. “I think that people aren’t really aware yet. And they’re willing. They’re talking on social media, but we have to get people to also organize and be actively involved in in the process.”

Mcteer said that there are probably about 20 or 30 local community members, including parents, on the email chain.

These community members don’t represent the entirety of the community against the books being pulled from schools, according to Mcteer. Instead members lay in groups like Indivisible Beaufort, a non-partisan group working to “act to engage our elected officials and make our voices heard to advance progressive agendas,” according to the group’s website.

The group has more than 500 people, according to the website, and they are part of more than 6,000 chapters across the United States.

“The Moms for Liberty are so well organized and orchestrated they seem to be intimidating,” said Indivisible Beaufort member Anne Dickerson. “You hear about the things in the news, and I know it was sort of a national movement, but I had no idea it was so organized or that it hit home.”

Dickerson said they’ve been speaking with officers from the American Library Association for resources. The non-profit has about 50,000 members and includes information on “How to respond to challenges and concerns about library resources” on its website.

All of these groups seem to have one thing in common: trying to switch their opposition from reactive to proactive.

When asked whether the ACLU would take legal action if the books were removed permanently from Beaufort County schools, Malkin didn’t directly answer.

“Not to speak to our office specifically, but when folks banned books, they’re opening themselves up to lawsuits,” he said.

Will Beaufort County be next?

When asked whether he could see what happened with the school boards in Berkeley and Charleston happening in Beaufort County, Castagnino said, “I am hopeful. I can’t say for sure. If only I had a crystal ball. I’m hopeful that it’ll move in the right direction.”

Four seats will be open in the 2024 Beaufort County School Board election. District 11 representative Ingrid Boatright’s seat is one of them.

“It looks like Berkeley and Charleston at some point or somehow decided that they wanted the district to go in a different direction,” she said. “If [political groups] want to have a say, and they have standing in the community, and they have people that vote in agreement with them, and they want to make their candidates known, I wouldn’t have a problem with that.”

Many community members fear conservative-backed candidates running on “parental rights” being elected to the school board next election.

“It’s definitely a big concern that we not allow them to completely flip the board,” Mcteer said. “They are making this partisan and school boards are 100% supposed to be nonpartisan.”

Superintendent Frank Rodriguez declined to comment on whether he thought it was appropriate for political groups to endorse candidates for nonpartisan roles like the board, which then elects the superintendent.