By Brian Lopez, The Texas Tribune, Aug. 16, 2022
Ahead of the first day of school, the Keller Independent School District is removing all books that were challenged last year within the school district, including the Bible, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s “The Diary of Young Girl.”
“Attached is a list of all books that were challenged last year. By the end of today, I need all books pulled from the library and classrooms. Please collect these books and store them in a location. (book room, office, etc.),” Jennifer Price, executive director of Keller ISD’s curriculum and instruction, wrote in an email sent to principals, obtained by The Texas Tribune.
Attached to the email was a list of 41 book titles to be removed, including all versions of the Bible and “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” by Maia Kobabe, which depicts Kobabe’s journey of gender identity and sexual orientation.
The direction to remove all 41 books surprised some local residents because a school district committee made up of members of the public met last year and recommended that some of the books now being removed — including Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and “Anne Frank’s Diary” — remain in student libraries.
But since that committee met and recommended keeping some challenged books, three new conservative school board members, all recipients of a Christian political action committee’s donations, were elected to the district’s seven-member board of trustees. And according to the school district, all 41 challenged books are now to be reviewed again by campus staff and librarians to see if they meet a new board policy approved last week, according to Bryce Nieman, the Keller ISD spokesperson.
Nieman said the school board, with its three newest members elected last spring, unanimously approved a new policy for acquiring and reviewing books. The policies are, in part, based on the Texas Education Agency’s model policy released in April after calls from Gov. Greg Abbott to come up with a state standard for these procedures. This includes the school board members or someone appointed by them, having the power to accept or reject any materials.
The first day of school for Keller ISD is Wednesday.
Last year’s district book committee was formed after parents found Kobabe’s book in the district and had it removed. At the same time, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, sent a list of some 850 books about race and sexuality — including Kobabe’s — to school districts asking for information about how many of those are available on their campuses.
Both Keller ISD and Krause kicked off a flurry of book challenges across the state over books that shared the perspectives of LGBTQ people and those that touched on the harsh reality of racism.
Both this Keller list and Krause’s share titles such as “Gender Queer” and “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Pérez, which follows a love story between a teenage Mexican American girl and a teenage African American boy in 1930s East Texas, including the 1937 New London School explosion about 200 miles north of Houston.
This latest book removal follows May’s fiery school board elections that centered on how America’s history of racism should be taught in Texas public schools and which books kids should be able access on campuses.
During those school board campaigns, there was unprecedented heavy investing in more conservative candidates by Patriot Mobile, a Texas-based cellphone company that donates a portion of its customers’ phone bills to conservative, “Christian” causes.
The company’s political action committee, Patriot Mobile Action, raised more than $500,000 for political contributions to Keller and other Tarrant County school board candidates. Part of the money raised was spent on top political consulting firms that bolstered a platform against critical race theory, with flyers saying the candidates were “saving America.”
Laney Hawes, who has four children in the district and served on the Keller ISD book committee, said she believes the removal of these books is a result of the Patriot Mobile Action PAC money that helped pay for the campaigns of the three new school board members.
“I feel bad for students who, many of them, the only opportunity they’re going to have to learn about really, really difficult topics is in books,” Hawes said. “I feel bad for the most marginalized kids in our school district, the LGBTQ+ kids and also a lot of the kids of color. I’m sad. I’m disheartened and I’m frustrated and I’m angry.”
Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the free expression via literature, said in a statement that the Keller ISD directive “tramples” on the work committee members did over the last year to their list.
“The sweeping attempt to remove these titles from classrooms and libraries on the eve of a new school year is an appalling affront to students’ First Amendment rights. It is virtually impossible to run a school or a library that purges books in response to any complaint from any corner,” Friedman said.
Critical race theory, typically a university-level field of study is the idea that racism is embedded in legal systems and not limited to individuals. It is not taught in Texas’ public schools, but has been used by conservatives as a buzzword to include anything about race taught or discussed in public secondary schools.
All of the school board candidates were billed as ones who would eradicate “critical race theory” from classrooms and remove books discussing LGBTQ issues, which some parents have described as “pornographic.”
In the Keller school board races, Patriot Mobile Action backed Micah Young, Joni Shaw Smith and Sandi Walker. All of them won. Neither Young or Smith returned calls from The Texas Tribune for comment on Tuesday. Walker told the Tribune she did not have any information.
Since last year, state lawmakers including Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have criticized what they claim is the “indoctrination” of children in classrooms. The two top elected officials have also made parental rights a priority as they both seek reelection in November. Patrick has also vowed to push for a “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Texas, mirroring Florida’s conservative push to limit classroom discussions about LGBTQ people.
“Parents will be restored to their rightful place as the preeminent decision-maker for their children,” Abbott declared on Jan. 26 during a campaign event at a charter school in Lewisville.
Yet, for years parents in Texas have wide-ranging rights. Currently, Texas parents have the right to remove their child temporarily from a class or activity that conflicts with their religious beliefs. They have the right to review all instructional materials, and the law guarantees them access to their student’s records and to a school principal or administrator. Also, school boards must establish a way to consider complaints from parents.
Still, some parents, opposed to and frustrated by masking requirements along with nearly three years of on-again, off-again school closures, have become more vocal at school board meetings, claiming their rights have been compromised.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.