Many have challenged State Superintendent Ryan Walters’ claims that school library shelves are riddled with pornography. But some of Walters’ accusations have been broad and fuzzy on details, making it hard to separate the truth from sensationalism. We dug into some of Walters’ claims by talking with school officials and reviewing some titles. We found that it’s true that some books with sexual content have been found on shelves in Oklahoma school libraries. But some titles have since been removed after protests and others have never been checked out. A definition of pornography that Walters has pushed the state to adopt is also somewhat subjective. Some of the children’s books included on a list Walters sent to lawmakers contain no explicit sexual imagery or descriptions, but have gay, transgender or nonbinary protagonists.
Claim: Graphic novels containing sexual images including “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “Flamer” by Mike Curato have been found in Oklahoma public schools.
Source: Walters made this claim in an April 3 letter to lawmakers.
Fact check: True
These books have been available in the past, but the districts Walters named have since removed the titles. Owasso Public Schools spokesman Jordan Korphage said “Flamer” was on the shelves of the district’s east high school campus library until recently. Last year, the district undertook a review of the book, but the reviewers found it not to be obscene and it remained on library shelves. It was removed again recently after Walters began calling it pornographic and is undergoing a second review, he said.
Crystal Raymond, spokeswoman for Oklahoma City Public Schools, said “Flamer” and “Gender Queer,” may have been on school library shelves in the past, but are no longer available.
“Gender Queer” and “Flamer” were available in high school libraries in Tulsa Public Schools last year, though they were removed.
Claim: The book “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationship, and Being a Human” by Erica Moen and Matthew Nolen, which features drawings of sex acts, is available at Oklahoma City Public Schools.
Source: Ryan Walters made this claim on Twitter in February, citing information from Chaya Raichik, a right-wing internet personality who operates the online account Libs of TikTok.
Fact Check: Mixed
Walters claimed the book “Let’s Talk About It,” which includes drawings of sexual acts, was available to students. The tweet included a screenshot of an online catalog that showed the book was available at an Oklahoma City high school library.
Oklahoma City Public Schools quickly responded with a statement saying the book was not available to students. The district did have a copy of the book that was included in a series of titles a national vendor had sent.
The district did an audit in August 2022 and removed the book, said Crystal Raymond, a spokesperson for Oklahoma City Public Schools.
“It was not in the library,” Raymond said. “It was a clerical error and (the website) had not been updated to reflect it had been pulled.”
-Reese Gorman and Clifton Adcock
Claim: Bixby, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Owasso and Stillwater schools have carried pornographic material.
Source: In his letter to lawmakers, Walters provided a timeline consisting mostly of articles from local news media, a national partisan media outlet and an Oklahoma-based Republican think tank, about parent challenges to books in Oklahoma schools. Though some of the articles list the books being challenged and the reasons for the challenges, many do not even list the titles of the books that were the source of the controversy. A spokesperson for the Oklahoma State Department of Education told KFOR that pornography had been found in these school districts.
Fact check: Mixed
Walter’s letter cites a definition of “porngraphic” that the State Department of Education adopted in March at his urging. The rule describes pornographic materials in part as “depictions or descriptions of sexual conduct which are patently offensive as found by the average person applying contemporary community standards, considering the youngest age of students with access to the material.” Fact-checking claims of whether material is pornographic is complicated by the fact that such determinations are often based on subjective value judgements.
Walters listed four books he said have been found in Oklahoma public school libraries that he considered pornographic — “Flamer,” in Tulsa, Owasso and Bixby school libraries; “Gender Queer: A Memoir” in Tulsa school libraries; “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationship, and Being a Human” and “Lawn Boy,” by Jonathan Evison. Walters’ letter does not name the two schools where those last two books were allegedly found.
After Owasso Public Schools’ recent removal of “Flamer,” one other book, the 2003 graphic novel “Blankets” by Craig Thompson, remains under review, a district spokesperson said.
Emma Garrett Nelson, a spokesperson for Tulsa Public Schools, said there are two copies of “Lawn Boy” in high school libraries that have never been checked out. The district does not currently have the other three books available, she said. Jessica Jernigan, spokeswoman for Bixby Public Schools, said none of the four books on Walters’ list are available to students. “Flamer” had been ordered for one Bixby school library, but was never made available to students after library staff reviewed it, Jernigan said. Two other books not on Walters’ list were challenged by parents at the school — “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl,” by Jesse Andrews, and “Thirteen Reasons Why,” by Jay Asher, but a review committee and the school board found both of those books to be acceptable for high school students.
Barry Fuxa, spokesman for Stillwater Public Schools, said none of the four books Walters cited as obscene are available on library shelves or through its digital catalog. The district has had one substantiated complaint about library materials over the past 16 years, and that book — “The Seventeen Guide to Sex and Your Body” — was removed last year, though it had been located in a middle school library’s adult section and had never been checked out, Fuxa said.
After removing “Let’s Talk About It,” Oklahoma City Public Schools still has six copies of “Lawn Boy” available in high school libraries, though none of the copies have ever been checked out, a spokesperson for the district said.
Walters’s letter also lists four “books in the marketplace to monitor” including “Bye Bye Binary” by Eric Geron; “Teos Tutu” by Maryann Jacob Macias, “Miss Rita, Mystery Reader” by Sam Donovan and Kristen Wixted and “Different Kinds of Fruit” by Kyle Lukoff. None of these books contain explicit sexual imagery or descriptions, but have gay, transgender or nonbinary protagonists.
The letter also contains the American Library Association’s entire 2023 Rainbow Book List that of 190 titles, described as a “diverse stories and identities representing LGBTQIA+ youth experience…”
True: A claim that is backed up by factual evidence
Mostly true: A claim that is mostly true but also contains some inaccurate details
Mixed: A claim that contains a combination of accurate and inaccurate or unproven information
True but misleading: A claim that is factually true but omits critical details or context
Mostly false: A claim that is mostly false but also contains some accurate details
False: A claim that has no basis in fact