As North East Independent School District planned to devise a new strategy for reviewing library books, students, parents and educators at Monday’s school board meeting overwhelmingly stated their opposition to the district’s removal of 414 books targeted by a state Republican lawmaker.
Superintendent Sean Maika said the district intends to review all 750,000 books in its school libraries, which could take years. NEISD plans to recruit teachers, parents and librarians to create the new book review process.
“We must do our due diligence and go through a review process, not because of fear or penalty, but because it’s the responsible thing to do,” he said.
NEISD librarians began pulling copies of the books from school library shelves Dec. 2 as part of a review process to weed out books that contain “vulgar or obscene material,” Maika wrote in a letter to families. The district, the second-largest in San Antonio with 60,000 students, used the list of about 850 books state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) asked districts to identify as part of an investigation into “school district content.”
In late October, Krause, chair of the House Committee on General Investigating, told the Texas Education Agency that he was initiating the inquiry into books that address race, sex or “material that might make students feel discomfort.” Gov. Greg Abbott followed in November, directing the TEA to investigate criminal activity related to “the availability of pornography” in public schools.
Maika said Monday that Abbott’s directive to the TEA and the agency’s recent opening of an investigation into Keller ISD indicated that NEISD needed to take the book review seriously. The TEA is investigating whether the school district properly evaluated books and whether it allowed students access to books with sexually explicit content, The Texas Tribune reported.
“I don’t believe we’ve heard the end of this from a state level,” Maika said.
Of the 414 books identified for review, NEISD librarians have returned 215 titles to library shelves and replaced 37 books that were damaged or “outdated,” Chief Instructional Officer Anthony Jarrett said. Another 20 books that were in elementary school libraries have been moved to middle or high school libraries because they were not “age appropriate.”
“This was never about banning books,” Maika said. “This was about making certain that the books that are on the shelf are age appropriate for the people that reside in that building.”
NEISD officials recently found two books on library shelves that were not “appropriate.” The district used Krause’s list as a starting point to review library books after a racist title, The Story of Little Black Sambo, was found in some NEISD libraries last spring. The book hadn’t been checked out since 1988, Maika said. A book on Krause’s list, Lawn Boy, was located in an elementary school library. Maika said this book was not appropriate for elementary students to read.
Lawn Boy has been targeted by parents in other school districts because the book contains passages in which the adult author reflects on sexual encounters he had with a boy when they were in the fourth grade.
Dozens of students, teachers, and parents turned out to the board meeting, filling the boardroom to capacity. All 17 people who spoke during public comment expressed their opposition to the book review, calling the action political and not in the best interest of students.
Amanda Jennings, a senior at Reagan High School, told the board that Krause should not have a say in what happens in a district he does not represent and that students need access to books that were written by diverse authors.
“Although you may say this is not a politically driven act, it is. This letter was written by a politician. The books were chosen and listed by a politician,” she said. “It is clear that the explicit content reasoning for pulling these books is a scapegoat to cover the discrimination occurring. Kids need to feel represented by the books that their schools provide, and those who don’t know about minority groups should have access to these books to learn.”
Last week, Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, said NEISD’s removal of the library books before they had been reviewed could be unconstitutional. In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school boards and administrators have the right to remove books from school libraries if they have “legitimate concerns about vulgarity and inappropriate content that will potentially harm growing minds.”
“The [Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v.] Pico case very clearly says that school districts cannot remove books for political reasons. They cannot remove books to suppress ideas,” Paulson said. “Removing books from a public library even for an interim period flies in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Pico.”
Heathcliff Lopez, a teacher at MacArthur High School, said the books on Krause’s list were written within the past 20 years, when “more marginalized and minority authors are writing books reflective of their experiences.” These books enable teachers to provide students with a “full range of texts.”
“As an educator, I understand there should be appropriateness when it comes to what students read. What I can’t help but notice is the amount of cherry-picking that is happening concerning the text of experiences you are choosing to suppress,” he said. “Obscene tends to skew towards the experiences of the marginalized, and the district knows this full well.”
Lopez went on to say that NEISD employees have had their faith in the district “completely shattered” by this book review and that some teachers and librarians have seen that their values no longer align with the district’s.
“How are you planning to keep teachers here who, like me, no longer feel welcome?” he said. “How are you planning to address students who feel anxiety, stress, panic, anger, resentment and sadness surrounding this attack on books? It has been devastating. The impact is real, and the impact always outweighs intention.”