These Texas parents are pushing back against school library book bans. ‘We can fight this’

Rick Bowmer/AP

A group of Texas parents are banding together to push back on book bans in school districts across the state.

The Texas Freedom to Read Project, a coalition of parents from across the state, launched Dec. 4. The group seeks to train parents on how to advocate for free access to books in their kids’ schools.

Laney Hawes, one of the group’s co-founders, is the mom of four kids in the Keller Independent School District. The district drew national attention last year when it pulled dozens of titles, including all translations of the Bible and a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl,” from library shelves for review. Hawes said she hopes to help other Texas parents combat book bans in their communities.

“I’m just watching these parents who are saying, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s starting here, I don’t know what to do,’” Hawes said.

Group will teach parents how to request book ban records

Among other things, the project will train parents on how to speak on the issue at school board meetings, Hawes said. Some parents need help navigating public comment rules, which can vary from one district to another, she said. Others just need help planning out what they want to say, she said. Volunteers from the project will talk with those parents about what ideas they want to get across and give them some talking points to get them started, she said.

Volunteers from the organization will also teach parents how to file open records requests, Hawes said. Those records are public documents, and they can give parents a better understanding of how their districts’ book acquisition, challenge and review processes work, she said. Policies regarding how books are chosen for libraries and how they’re reviewed after a challenge are set locally, meaning the processes can differ widely between districts.

Those records can also give parents a better idea of who is challenging what titles in their kids’ schools, Hawes said. Nationwide, research suggests a small number of people are responsible for the majority of book challenges in local school districts. An analysis by The Washington Post of records from school districts across the country found that just 11 adults were responsible for about 60% of all book challenges filed during the 2021-22 school year.

Hawes said she got involved in the issue after then-state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Haslet, sent an inquiry related to a list of 849 books to the Texas Education Agency and several school districts. Most of the books included in the list deal with race and racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, sex and sexuality, abortion and LGBTQ rights.

In the letter, Krause, who served as chairman of the House General Investigating Committee at the time, asked for information about how many of the books districts owned, how much they’d spent on them and any other books they had related to subjects like sexually transmitted infections and “material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”

Hawes said Krause’s inquiry made her concerned about whether her kids would continue to have access to books at school. So she started attending school board meetings, and eventually volunteered to serve on committees the district assembled to review books that had been challenged. That concern turned to alarm when Keller ISD changed its process for removing books from libraries, taking the decision out of those committees’ hands, she said.

Keller ISD policy change bans books with trans, nonbinary themes

Under the district’s old policy, when a parent or other district resident challenged a book, the title went before a book review committee made up of community volunteers. Committee members read the book and decided whether it was appropriate for school libraries, whether it was suitable only for certain grade levels or whether it should be removed.

But during the summer of 2022, the district’s board approved a new policy for reviewing challenged books. Under the new policy, when a book is challenged, district leaders must use a prescribed rubric for deciding whether it should stay in libraries. Under that rubric, certain thematic elements like violence, bullying and drug use are permitted for certain grade levels, depending on how pervasive they are. But some elements like illustrations or descriptions of “nude intimate body parts” and detailed descriptions of sex acts are prohibited across all grade levels.

The following November, the board added a provision requiring the removal of any titles that include “discussion or depiction of gender fluidity,” no matter how pervasive it is. Included under that provision is any book that acknowledges that a person can identify by a gender that’s different from the one listed on their birth certificate. So any book that includes a trans or nonbinary character would be removed automatically if challenged.

In a Facebook post, Charles Randklev, president of the district’s school board, wrote that the policy was meant to “protect children from sexually-explicit, age-inappropriate instructional materials.”

“Political subject matter like gender theory and sexual identity are best discussed within families, as parents choose, rather than within the classroom setting,” Randklev said.

Keller ISD made national headlines last year when the district’s curriculum director sent principals a last-minute request to remove all titles from school libraries that had been challenged the previous year before the first day of school. The 41 titles removed included all versions of the Bible and “Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation.”

A district spokesman said at the time that the books were set aside to be re-reviewed under the new policy. District officials pushed back on news coverage of the move, saying the books weren’t banned outright, but were instead moved to a “parental consent area” until the challenge process was completed. Students could still access those books, but only with a parent’s permission.

Some titles, including “Anne Frank’s Diary” and the Bible, were eventually returned to library shelves. But others, including “The Bluest Eye,” the debut novel of Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, were not. The list of titles removed under the new policy included several volumes that book challenge committees reviewed the previous year and determined they should remain on library shelves. Under the district’s new policy, any title removed from libraries can’t be reconsidered for inclusion for 10 years.

A Keller ISD spokesman said Thursday that the district hadn’t been contacted by the organization. In a statement, district officials said they welcome public input on the district’s book review policy.

“We are committed to ensuring that students have access to the age-appropriate learning materials they need to excel in their educational endeavors, and we always welcome any feedback we receive from Keller ISD stakeholders in regard to those efforts,” officials said.

Report highlights surge in book bans in Texas, nationwide

In a report released last year, the free speech nonprofit PEN America highlighted a sharp uptick in book bans in school districts across the country, with Texas leading the way. The report noted that the large majority of book challenges “are not spontaneous, organic expressions of citizen concern,” but are instead part of a coordinated political strategy.

In a statement released last week, Kasey Meehan, a program director at PEN America, said the organization welcomes the launch of the Texas project.

“Deep in the heart of Texas, parents, students, librarians, educators, and activists are standing against censorship and threats to free expression in schools and libraries,” Meehan said. “In partnership, we join them in a passionate defense for the freedom to read.”

But although the group is only a week old, it already has its detractors. In a post last week on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, claimed the group wants to “push radically sexually explicit material” on students while they’re away from their parents.

“We’ll fight them. Every step of the way,” Patterson wrote.

But Hawes, the Keller ISD mom, said the group doesn’t believe pornography belongs in school libraries. The group also acknowledges that not every book is appropriate for every student, and it supports the right of parents to decide what books their kids can access and which are off limits. But individual parents don’t have the right to decide that certain books should be off limits for kids across the district, she said.

Books once on reading lists get swept up in debate

Frank Strong, another of the group’s co-founders, is an English teacher at an Austin charter school and the parent of a student in the Austin Independent School District. Strong said he’s watched as books he’s taught for years have gotten swept up in book ban discussions.

For years, Strong started his AP English class with “The Glass Castle,” a memoir by author and columnist Jeannette Walls. The fact that the book is a memoir means it’s useful for high school seniors who are beginning to think about college application essays, he said, and the story is a good fit for 17- and 18-year-olds.

But the book also contains explicit language and includes themes like child molestation, sexual behavior between adolescents and violence. It’s appeared on book challenge lists for more than a decade, ranking as the ninth most challenged book in 2012, according to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.

Strong said he expects they will always be book challenges in school libraries. It’s natural for there to be a certain amount of debate about which books are appropriate for which grade levels, he said. Those challenge processes can be a healthy and productive thing, he said, as long as they incorporate the voices of a variety of people, including teachers, parents and librarians. What’s more worrisome, he said, is when those decisions are handled by school boards and district administrators with little transparency or input from the public.

Strong acknowledged that parents pushing back against book bans are trying to catch up with parents and activists who are working to pull certain titles out of school libraries. But he’s optimistic that there’s a path to success through organizing in local communities, particularly around school board races.

Hawes, the Keller ISD mom, agreed. Parents in school districts across the state are fighting the same battles, she said, and she’s hopeful that they can make more headway by working together to keep books in school libraries.

“It’s not always successful, but we can fight this,” Hawes said. “...If anything, we can at least keep a record and call it out when we see so many books just pulled off the shelves.”