North East ISD’s remove of library books that a legislator flagged as inappropriate has sparked outrage among some who decry the effort as censorship that will marginalize minority and LGBT students.
One of the largest school districts in Texas is pulling more than 400 books from its shelves for review, after a Republican state lawmaker flagged them as inappropriate.
The inquiry launched by North East Independent School District in San Antonio is the most far-reaching response yet to a push from the lawmaker and Gov. Greg Abbott to scrutinize school library books dealing with issues of sexuality and systemic racism. Already, the district says it has identified books that contain graphic sexual content that is not suitable for students 18 and under.
The book titles were temporarily scrubbed from the NEISD online catalog and an electronic and audiobook app available to students, and school librarians are removing the volumes but can restock them if appropriate as the review continues, school officials said. The review does not involve books kept in classrooms.
Abbott last month ordered the Texas Education Agency and other agencies to develop a statewide standard for keeping “pornography and other obscene content” out of public schools after controversies in a number of school districts over books about LGBT characters that include sexually explicit images and descriptions.
The removal of the books from North East ISD libraries has sparked outrage among some students and community members who decry the effort as censorship that will marginalize minority and LGBT students. An online petition started by students Friday opposing the move has garnered more than 800 signatures so far.
State Rep. Matt Krause, chairman of the House General Investigating Committee, has queried a number of large and medium-sized school districts about 800 individual titles that he has suggested should be removed from campuses because circulating them may violate new state laws governing how sex and race are addressed in Texas classrooms.
A Hearst Newspapers review last month found that the majority of the books on Krause’s list pertained to LGBT issues, and a Dallas Morning News report found that many had been written by women, people of color or LGBTQ authors.
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“Our literature and the stories in our school libraries need to reflect diversity simply because that’s the truth of the world we live in. That is the truth and the reality of the student body of our schools,” one student, who identifies as bisexual, wrote in a public Instagram post. “This is a BLATANT act of racism and homophobia on NEISD’s end, with absolutely zero consideration for their own students.”
NEISD spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said the district is reviewing 414 books that appeared on Krause’s list and others questioned by parents and community members or mentioned in media reports “out of an abundance of caution” and to “ensure they did not have any obscene or vulgar material in them.”
The district’s 67 librarians are being asked to make sure that the books follow the school’s selection policy, which was established by the school board.
“Most of those are appropriate and will stay on our library shelves as is; however, some may contain content that needs further review to ensure the books are accessible based on age appropriateness,” Chancellor said. “For us, this is not about politics or censorship, but rather about ensuring that parents choose what is appropriate for their minor children.”
About 100 books have been returned to shelves, said Chancellor, who added that the district found that some publishers had “incorrectly coded” books as appropriate when “some of the content in the books was definitely not appropriate for young students or even high school students” because of graphic sexual content.
It’s unclear how long the NEISD review will take, though the school district has made library-related journals and other resources and staff available to assist the librarians.
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The district also plans to form a book review committee to determine what books may need to go in a separate section of the library, as well as an electronic tool that will allow parents to see which library books their children are checking out, Chancellor said.
Some teachers and librarians have questioned why the review did not follow the typical procedure for responding to complaints about instructional resources. An informal complaint would typically be handled through a conversation with the professional staff, while a formal complaint would prompt a review by a “reconsideration committee” appointed by the principal. In the current case, the district decided to be “proactive” instead, Chancellor said.
Critics also said the books usually stay on the shelves during the district’s complaint review process.
“In cases like those, it’s considered a book that has been challenged,” Chancellor said. “In our process that we are conducting now, it’s a verification and occurs much quicker.”
According to district records obtained by Hearst Newspapers, since 2007 the district has never removed or moved to a different grade level more than a few books a year, with the exception of several middle school library books within a single series in 2012 deemed better for high school ages.
Krause did not respond to a request for comment. A letter he wrote asked districts only to confirm whether they carried certain books and did not compel them to get rid of books. Most of the state’s largest school districts did not conduct the review, saying the request was informal and did not necessitate a response, though many supplied Krause with copies of their book complaint and removal policies.
Sara Robles Chicote, a 17-year-old senior at Reagan High School, said she was shocked to learn that the censorship she’d read about in history books was, at least temporarily, becoming a reality in her school district. She was particularly disturbed about the themes of the books in question — indigenous and minority groups, sexual consent, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases — and posted about it on Instagram on Friday.
“Students are already not given an appropriate sex education course, leaving them with little options to gain knowledge on how to practice safe sexual relationships,” she wrote in her post. “what is this and why are we promoting a decrease in education?”
Robles added in an interview that she felt the criticism of books on the list was political in nature and hypocritical. One of the books on the list, “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, is one she’s read and enjoyed and is about a dystopian society in which women are stripped of their rights and used for reproductive purposes. Yet sophomores at her school regularly read another dystopian book, “1984” by George Orwell, that describes an intellectually oppressed society.
“What’s different amongst these books where one gets banned and another doesn’t? That a woman wrote it and it’s about women directly,” she said.
Texas schools have to walk a fine line when navigating a Supreme Court precedent around book removals in libraries, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.
“The removal, rather than the selection, of library books raises constitutional concerns,” the organization says in its guidance to board members. “Although school officials retain significant discretion over the contents of the school library, state and local discretion may not be exercised in a way that violates students’ free speech rights by removing books for partisan or political reasons.”
Still, in consultation with lawyers, administrators and their boards, districts can legally remove a resource “because it lacks educational value or contains vulgar content.” They can consider the students’ age, maturity and “impressionability.”
“Districts should work closely with their school attorney and proceed with caution given the significant risk of a First Amendment challenge,” the guidance reads.
Christine Emeran, a program director at the National Coalition Against Censorship, a New York-based alliance of 50 U.S. nonprofit organizations, said schools have an obligation to keep politics out of the decision-making process.
“The books were originally chosen based on some sort of literary, educational or other professional criteria. So to remove them at the behest of a complainant privileges the viewpoint of the complainant. One could, quite easily, just continually complain about books they didn’t like to keep them pulled from the shelves, making them harder to access while undergoing the review process,” said Nora Pelizzari, the communications director for the group.
“The process should err on the side of access, not the side of censorship.”
Staff writers Claire Bryan and Libby Seline contributed to this report.
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