Texas conservatives have set their sights on school libraries. North East ISD’s proactive response concerns parents, students
Texas school districts have faced a wave of book challenges this year as part of a national GOP push to control the way racism and sexuality is framed in public schools. The challenges and critiques have resulted in dozens of book bans and hundreds of re-evaluations of what sits on school library shelves.
San Antonio’s North East Independent School District hasn’t received a single formal book challenge this year, but the district’s administrators took it upon themselves to pull hundreds of books for review. Some parents and students have questioned the district’s motivations and criticized its selections.
In October 2021, State Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) sent a letter to several Texas school districts that included a list of more than 800 books. He wanted to know if they had any of those books in their schools or any other books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”
Instead of ignoring the letter, as some school districts did, or providing the information Krause requested, the North East Independent School District in San Antonio, or NEISD, took things a step further. District administrators directed campus librarians to pull the books on the Krause list off their shelves and review them to make sure they “do not contain obscene or vulgar material,” based on district standards. The librarians found about 430 of the 850 books on Krause’s list in their campus libraries.
In a presentation to the district’s board of trustees in December, District Superintendent Sean Maika explained that administrators asked librarians to review the books because he was worried NEISD could be “caught up in a legal battle” after Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Education Agency to develop regulations to remove “pornography” from public schools.
“While the Krause list may be politically motivated, the review of our books is not,” Maika said. “Some of the books on his list include graphic material that is not appropriate for a young audience. As a parent myself – you all well know I have two children – I would not have wanted my elementary aged kids to read some of those books, not because of their overall subject matter, or the author, but because of the material that was not age appropriate within it.”
In interviews with TPR, and in public comments during December’s board meeting, parents and students disagreed with Maika’s assertion that the book review wasn’t political. They pointed out that the books on the list contained ideas and themes that Krause opposes.
“The list was political in nature (from) the beginning,” said Kira Sutter, a high school senior who is queer and on the nonbinary spectrum. “You know that ‘traditional values’ (are) going to favor getting rid of things like all media of queer people, and any talk about like abortion or safe sex.”
M, whose son X is a freshman at North East, said it felt like the district conducted the review out of fear of being sued, instead of thinking of its students.
X is trans. TPR is using his and his mom's first initials to protect their safety, due to Abbott’s executive order to investigate gender-affirming care in trans youth as child abuse.
“Instead of responding (in the) best interest of the kids, as their job is, they did the opposite. They responded in terms of money and fear,” M said.
The books Krause and Abbott deemed inappropriate focused on racism, sex and gender identity. Most of the authors are women, people of color or LGBTQ+.
In a second presentation to the board in March 2022, North East ISD’s library services department shared the results of the review of Krause’s list. The department recommended campus librarians permanently remove 110 books, about 13% of the books on Krause’s list. Many of the books on the list for removal contain LGBTQ+ topics or themes.
More than 300 books were returned to their shelves, including most of the books about racism. Five books were moved from an elementary school to a middle school, and six books were moved from a middle school to a high school.
Library Services Director Terri Sanchez said the final call on whether or not to remove a book from their library was left up to the campus librarian, so some books might be pulled at one library but not another.
For instance, Sanchez said Love,Creekwood, the final book in a series by Becky Albertalli, was in two high school libraries. One librarian removed the book due to poor circulation. The other kept it.
“Libraries are a microcosm of the community they live in,” Chief Instructional Officer Anthony Jarrett said. “All the librarians really wanted to be able to vet their own books to make sure that they still remained age appropriate, but also representative of the student bodies that attend those schools.”
Although district administrators initially said they were conducting the review to ensure students weren’t exposed to “obscene or vulgar material,” that’s not the reason they said they decided to remove the 110 books from campus libraries. Instead, they said the books were outdated, lacked reviews, or had poor reviews.
During the board meeting, district administrators said they would replace the removed books with new books of a similar subject but they didn’t say what new books the school planned to purchase.
TPR emailed Aubrey Chancellor, the district spokesperson, and obtained a list of the recommended replacement books. None of the parents or students interviewed by TPR had seen that list until TPR shared it with them.
Bonnie Scott, the mother of an NEISD 2nd grader, said the way the district has handled the book review process left her feeling like she’s not getting the full story.
“I'm usually a person who's like, ‘Let the experts do their job,’ but this just doesn't seem transparent enough,” Scott said. “I just keep going back to that feeling right of like, I'm feeling a little tricked.”
Chancellor said the list was posted on the district’s library services website about a week after the board meeting.
The district’s timing for the review
In a letter sent to parents in December, Maika said he was already considering reviewing the district’s library books before NEISD received the letter from Krause.
“Since we were already determining how best to review our library books, we used that list as a jumping off point,” Maika said in the letter.
During the board meeting a few days later, Maika said he decided to conduct a review of the district’s library books last school year after he found out “a very old copy of Little Black Sambo was in an elementary library, with characters of African Americans depicted in a very negative manner.”
The book was written in 1899, and contains racist slurs.
Jarrett told TPR that NEISD had also discovered a book on Krause’s list with mature themes had been delivered to an elementary school by mistake.
“There's two versions of Lawn Boy, but it ended up in one of our elementary schools,” Jarrett said. “And then, once we saw that that book was also on the list, it really triggered this point where we felt like we needed to just review (to) make sure we didn't have other books that were on this list that may have had any sexually explicit information on the wrong shelf or grade level.”
NEISD Library Services Director Terri Sanchez blamed the problem on vendor error. The librarian had intended to order the version of Lawn Boy written by Gary Paulsen, but the vendor delivered a book by the same title written by Jonathan Evison.
But parents and students interviewed by TPR said they still didn't understand why NEISD conducted a review of the books on Krause's list.
“I know that the superintendent of North East claims that like, ‘Oh, (I) already was thinking about doing the review, and I just used this list as the jumping (off) point.’ Okay, fine. But why this list?” Scott said. “There was literally no data to back up that this was the list to start with.”
Regardless of the district’s intentions — and even though NEISD administrators said they will review all 750,000 titles in campus libraries over the next few years — Sutter said starting the review of the district’s books with a list of books about racism, abortion and LGBTQ+ themes means, that by default, most of the books removed from the library will be about those same topics.
“My fear is that they are removing books to review them and replace them with better titles or whatever, and maybe are not going to fully complete that,” Sutter said. “And if they don't replace them, who's really going to know?”
Library Services Director Terri Sanchez said all of the books the school removed will be replaced.
“It'll take a couple of months for them all to come in, but they're being ordered,” she explained. “We have specific vendors, so it is a fairly lengthy process.”
High school senior Angela Elias said she believed the district conducted the book review to keep kids safe, but it was carried out in the wrong way.
She blames the state rather than the district.
“(NEISD) wants what’s good for us,” Elias said. “But I don't know if it's exactly like they're doing what's best for us, just because some of those books that they want to pull out are full of stuff that we need to know. And if they're going to shelter us from that, how are we going to know what to do in that certain situation?”
Elias learned about the book review in her English class, and she didn’t know the district planned to replace the books they removed until TPR told her.
“It actually makes me feel a little better now,” Elias said. “If they're replacing it with (a) similar subject, I think that's pretty good.”
The district’s reasons for removal
Even though NEISD initially conducted the book review to make sure students weren’t exposed to “obscene and vulgar materials,” as defined by the district, Jarrett said none of the books were removed from the library for those reasons. Instead, he explained, the district moved books to a more “age-appropriate” campus and labeled some high school books for “older audiences.”
“We didn't want to remove or consider removal of a book based on viewpoint,” Jarrett said. “That was never something we discussed doing, and I think that's where the public kind of got a little mixed up on, because our goal was to make sure that they were on the appropriate shelf and sitting with the appropriate kids.”
Also, the district will enable parents to opt their students out of accessing books with “explicit sexual content.” The district will label those books for “older audiences” and bar students from checking them out if their parents opt them out.
Library services gave two primary reasons why the 110 books were removed from campus libraries: reviews and outdated content.
For instance, A Guy’s Guide to Sexuality and Sexual Identity in the 21st Century uses the acronym GLBT instead of LGBTQ, and incorrectly calls trans people “transgendered.” Five nonfiction books on abortion written between 1988 and 2008 were also flagged for replacement with books written within the last three years.
Parents and students interviewed by TPR said they agreed books should be replaced when they’re outdated, but they didn’t understand why NEISD would pull a book based on their reviews, especially when the book is ranked highly on Amazon or Good Reads.
“Why would a book be taken off the shelves because less people have read it, and less people have reviewed it? That doesn't really make too much sense (to) me,” said North East 8th grader Michael Glodowski.
“The ‘not enough reviews’ situation seemed very fast and loose to me, and not really a really adequate reason,” added Michael’s mom, Leslie Sturgis. “I feel like that could possibly be a way to just sort of put it on the list. There's your reason.”
Michael said he became concerned about the uptick in banned books after reading Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust.
“He was a Polish Jew during World War II who evaded capture until 1944,” said Michael. “My last name, Glodowski, is Eastern European, so that’s where my family comes from.”
Maus wasn’t part of NEISD’s book review, though Katy ISD challenged the book this year, and a Tennessee school district pulled the Pulitzer Prize winning book from its curriculum.
“I've noticed a big trend: They're all books on heavy topics that are being removed, and that they think that us kids in middle school can't handle these topics,” Michael said.
Sanchez, the district’s library services director, explained that NEISD based its decisions on professional reviews like “School Library Journal,” not popular rankings.
“Professional librarians are doing the reviews that we have access to,” she said. “We like to rely on ‘School Library Journal’ a lot because they’re school librarians, obviously, that're giving the reviews. They'll give you a grade level range, and they'll also give you a verdict. And they'll say something like, ‘this is highly recommended, your library collection can't do without this, or it's a good title.’”
But that doesn’t entirely explain the rationale for some of the recommendations.
For instance, Krause’s list flagged the 2004 edition of It's Perfectly Normal: A Book About Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health. NEISD’s Library Services recommended it for removal because of a lack of reviews, but newer editions of It’s Perfectly Normal have professional reviews.
The 2014 edition available in the San Antonio Public Library has four professional reviews. The “School Library Journal” called it “highly acclaimed,” “straightforward and accessible,” and noted it’s one of the most “frequently challenged books of the 21st century.”
Booklist, an American Library Association publication, noted that some libraries “will have problems” with the book’s nude illustrations, but added that “librarians will find it well worth fighting for if, by some chance, the need arises.”
Instead of recommending the 2004 edition be replaced by a newer edition of the same book, NEISD’s Library Services recommended it be replaced by a different book on puberty, dating and sexuality.
Sanchez said NEISD only had one copy of It’s Perfectly Normal, and she spoke to the middle school librarian where it was located to decide the best way to handle it.
“A lot of the topics in there are sex ed, and she felt like that's better left to the professionals (that teach sex ed) in our schools,” Sanchez explained. “And she did have another book that she found that was very religious and was promoting that viewpoint, and she felt neither one of them was a good fit for her school. And so, that's why she made that decision.”
North East mom Bonnie Scott said the idea that sex ed should be left to the classroom distrubed her.
“North East ISD traditionally does not have a good record for doing reliable, evidence-based sex ed. So, in what classroom exactly is she suggesting this happens?” she asked.
NEISD’s sex ed curriculum has been a hotly debated topic in the district for several years, with conservatives calling for a return to abstinence-only education, and progressives arguing that Texas’s curriculum doesn’t go far enough.
It’s Perfectly Normal includes thorough and inclusive explanations of sexual orientation and gender identity, topics that aren’t covered in NEISD’s sex ed curriculum.
Sanchez said the newer editions of It’s Perfectly Normal “didn’t have good reviews either,” and that It’s Perfectly Normal wasn’t checked out very often.
“I know, there was some talk about the pictures too, that were not great,” Sanchez said. But she also added that the book wasn’t removed because it was considered vulgar or obscene.
“Not necessarily,” Sanchez said. “Just not the best. Not what we want our students to learn from.”
Michael Glodowski flipped through the 2014 edition of It’s Perfectly Normal with his mom during their interview with TPR.
“I think it's appropriate for middle school age,” Michael said. “It's not like real pictures. It's just illustrations. And it's our body, like, why are we so ashamed of it?”
He said it was also important to include sex ed books with LGBTQ+ topics in middle school libraries.
“Some people don't want to accept it, but kids feel this way,” Michael said.
Selecting and evaluating school books
Critics, parents and students questioned if NEISD’s book review was standard practice.
Mary Woodard, president-elect of the Texas Library Association, said school districts have a standard procedure to follow when a parent or administrator has a concern about a library book. She said NEISD should have followed that procedure instead of directing its librarians to pull the books on Krause’s list and review them independently.
“What should have happened is, if they really didn't feel it was appropriate, then they – district admin, parents, whoever – should have brought a formal challenge and let it go through the process,” Woodard explained. “Anybody can bring a formal book challenge and should, even if they work for the school district.”
A formal book challenge is decided by a committee of school officials and parents after reading the book and discussing the educational and literary value of the book in its entirety.
Woodard is the director of library services at Mesquite ISD in North Texas. Her district also received Krause’s letter, but it didn’t respond.
“Our legal counsel recommended that we not send that information in unless we were specifically directed to do so by the legislature,” she said.
Woodard said librarians regularly weed books from their collections if they’re outdated or aren’t being checked out, but the type of widespread review undertaken by NEISD wasn’t necessary.
“If a book is in the library, somebody, some professional, has evaluated that book and decided it was appropriate to be in the collection. So, to me, a review like that has already been done,” Woodard said. “It's not something we undertook in our district.”
Woodard said the Texas Library Association advocates for books to be kept on the library shelves even if some parents believe they are “vulgar or obscene,” as the district defined them, because the terms are open to interpretation.
“What is going to be vulgar and obscene to one parent is not going to be vulgar and obscene to another parent. I’ve had people contact me with concerns about picture books (because) they felt like underwear was a private thing,” Woodard said. “Which is why we support the right of a parent to say what their own child can read (but not the right to say what other parent’s children can read).”
Woodard said the uptick in book challenges and the attention from politicians is having a chilling effect on school librarians and what books students have access to in Texas.
“Some districts are in the media about this. I hear of others. But there are some that I know are just not saying anything — that are just quietly removing things,” Woodard said. “That does a disservice to those kids who deserve to have their lives reflected in the books that are available, because that sends a message to them that you're not really that important, it. (That) it's more important for us just to maintain the status quo.”
Woodard said the mood in the state might also cause school librarians to second guess themselves when they’re deciding what books to add to their libraries.
“Sometimes that will lead people to maybe not pull books off their shelf, but as they're selecting new materials it definitely would lead them to say, ‘Oh, that might upset somebody if I bought that. I know that I've got a student who has two moms or two dads, but it might upset someone else, if I put that book in my collection.’"
This is the first of a two-part special report exploring the district’s actions and subsequent reactions. Part 2 explores the impact of the book review on LGBTQ+ students and families at NEISD.
TPR is producing an occasional series of stories on the rise in book challenges and political efforts to control what’s taught in Texas schools. If you’re a campus librarian, history teacher or LGBTQ student with a story to share, email Camille@tpr.org or message her on WhatsApp.