Texas School District Pulls 400+ Books From Shelves After Governor Pressure

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Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

The North East Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, has pulled 414 books from their shelves for review following a letter from a Republican lawmaker labelling them inappropriate. They are also adding an electronic tool that will allow parents to see which books their children have checked out from the library.

In October, Republican lawmaker Matt Krause sent a letter to the Texas Education Agency with a list of 850 books. He asked that every district in the state report whether they had any of the books on the list and how much was spent on them, as well as any other book that could cause “an individual [to] feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex” or that covers topics such as “human sexuality.”

Texas governor Greg Abbott has also been calling for censorship of school library books, calling for the removal of “pornography” from schools, which is an accusation that has typically been aimed at LGBTQ titles in recent school and public library book challenges.

The list from Matt Krause is wide-ranging, covering everything from nonfiction books about STIs to picture book about gender-nonconforming characters to history books about racism. I analyzed each entry on the list and found that the majority of them were LGBTQ YA books, but it seems to include any book that mentions LGBTQ people, even as minor characters. The list also includes glaring mistakes, troubling inclusions (such as several books on students’ rights), and several indications that it was put together using a keyword search, not analysis of each title.

Most districts ignored this letter, stating that they have no legal obligation to report this data to Krause. Others did an estimate of how much staff time it would cost the district to provide this information and requested the state provide that funding up front. If every district did this analysis, it would cost the state millions of dollars in staff hours.

The North East ISD is the first district to have such an far-reaching response to this letter, and students (as well as other members of the community) are protesting, calling it censorship. A student-created petition has already gathered 1,000 signatures opposing the removal of these books from schools. In addition to being pulled from school library shelves, the titles have also been removed from the online catalog and apps students have access to.

The Texas Association of School Boards has released a statement detailing how book challenges should be handled by school districts, as well as outlining the difference between how instructional materials are chosen versus library books. It states,

“Once a resource has been made available in a school library, removal of the resource implicates students’ First Amendment rights. According to the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark 1982 decision, the First Amendment rights of students may be ‘directly and sharply’ implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library.”

Generally, when school library books are challenged, they remain on the shelves until the review process has finished. The North East ISD spokesperson Aubrey Chancellor argues that this isn’t a challenge, but a “verification,” and therefore does not have to follow the procedures associated with a formal complaint–the procedures that ensure students’ First Amendment rights aren’t being violated. She states that the district has chosen to be “proactive” in removing books from the shelves.

A representative of Association of Texas Professional Educators commented on how this inquiry comes at a time when schools are already spread thin, dealing with staffing shortages due to the pandemic:

We continue to question the wisdom of a state lawmaker asking school districts to embark on these time-consuming and costly investigations at a time when they are already struggling to maintain the staffing levels necessary to conduct normal business.

One student was disturbed by the kinds of books that disappeared from her high school library: books discussing Indigenous and racialized groups, books teaching about consent and safe sex, and classic feminist works like The Handmaid’s Tale. She took to Instagram, saying,

“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. What is this and why are we promoting a decrease in education?”

This censorship will affect already marginalized students the most. It’s books about antiracism and LGBTQ issues that have been targeted, and queer and POC students already see very few reflections of themselves in school curricula or media at large. Removing these books means they can’t even seek out books they can relate to.

This is especially true for students from low-income families, who rely on the library to access these materials at all. And for closeted students from unsupportive families, reading these books in the school library may be the only place they can find representation and explore the questions they have about themselves.

Since the review began, 100 books have been returned to school libraries, though even if every book is returned, it’s a chilling statement for queer students and students of color to see how quickly they can be erased from their own school libraries.

To keep up with censorship news, check back at Book Riot for our weekly censorship news posts every Friday. Also consider following @FReadom_Fighters on Twitter, who have been raising awareness of recent book challenges, especially in Texas. A few more relevant links: