Back To Censorship

A new school year means more curriculum and reading list controversy

Censors didn’t take the summer off.

As millions of students pour back into classrooms across the U.S., book bans, censored lessons and threats against school staff continue to spike. Here’s a look at some of the most recent developments and trends.

In suburban Fort Worth, school board trustees in Keller ISD passed a policy Aug. 8 requiring all previously challenged books to undergo yet another review. That meant a day before school started, teachers pulled any copies of the 41 titles on the district’s list in their schools. Books removed included multiple award-winning titles with LGBTQ themes, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the Bible, and a graphic-novel adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank.

A graphic novel edition of The Diary of Anne Frank, one of the many books restricted under Texas’s Keller ISD censorship regime.

The board’s new policy isn’t banning, but an effort “to protect kids from sexually-explicit content, which has found its way into our schools,” insisted Keller ISD Board President Charles Randklev in an Aug. 17 Facebook post.

Randklev said new regulations from the Texas Education Agency triggered the bonus round of review. He presides over a board whose newest three members won election in May after campaigns heavily funded by Christian conservative PAC Patriot Mobile Action.

The ACLU’s Texas outpost called on Keller ISD to reverse its decision, noting in a Aug. 18 email that more than half of the books related to LBGTQ themes and characters, race and the history of racism, or antisemitism and the Holocaust.

“Keller ISD’s removal of these 41 books harms students in the district,” the email reads. “It does so both by directly suppressing speech and access to ideas and by sending the message to LGBTQ, Black, brown and Jewish students that Keller ISD rejects their history and belonging in the community.”

In north Texas, Grapevine-Colleyville ISD alerted parents in early August it would “postpone” the usual Scholastic book fair while the district searched for another vendor.

Scholastic is the nation’s largest children’s publisher and launched its book-fair program in 1981. The fair includes books from more than 100 publishers. However, according to the letter sent home to parents, Scholastic couldn’t “meet all the expectations and requirements of GCISD when it comes to documentation of the materials that would be available at book fairs.”

Scholastic book-fair orders for students can continue in Sarasota County, Fla., a district spokesperson told the local CBS affiliate, as long as parents review the forms. But parents can’t buy books at the fair for their child’s classroom or school library, and students must take their books home and not use them in the classroom library or school media center. Schools that haven’t yet scheduled their fairs must wait until spring to do so.

The district froze book purchases for Sarasota classrooms overall as it sorts out compliance with a new Florida law that requires an employee with an education media specialist certificate to approve all classroom reading material.

“My heart is heavy for educators in Sarasota, FL … This is educational malpractice by way of politics,” tweeted educator LaQuisha Hall, a 2018 Teacher of the Year in Baltimore, Md., of the Florida changes.

Florida and Texas aren’t the only states where new regulations are erecting hurdles to book access. An Aug. 17 report from PEN America found that educational “gag order” proposals have spiked 250 percent so far in 2022 compared with last year. Such proposals are now law in “19 different states where 122 million Americans reside, underscoring the rapidly escalating threats to students’ First Amendment rights,” the group said in a statement accompanying the report’s release.

The PEN America report also notes that lawmakers’ proposals have become “strikingly more punitive,” outlining fines, loss of funding, termination or even criminal charges for teachers who run afoul of the new provisions. Such charges for teachers and librarians are a common talking point for far-right groups like Moms For Liberty that advocate for bans under the misnomer of “parents’ rights.”

In Hamilton County, Tenn., newly elected district attorney Coty Wamp told an audience during her campaign that “some of these books” cross a criminal line. “It’s called contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” she said in a response to a question about “these” books Moms For Liberty has identified. In addition to organized complaints, Moms for Liberty has also developed a book-rating system, BookLooks.

Wamp later recanted, saying she wouldn’t prosecute such cases. She might have an ideological compatriot in state lawmaker Jerry Sexton, though. The east Tennessee Republican stated “I would burn ‘em” during debate on a bill about removing books from libraries.

Legal (and incendiary) challenges aren’t the only threats. Some far-right groups are targeting and threatening educators on social media who post clips of their inclusive classrooms or assignments. In Austin, an elementary school moved its Pride celebration inside after administrators received death threats. The hashtags for both the national and Texas library conferences served as beacons on social-media for attacks of “groomer” and anti-LGBTQ slurs. In Arkansas, administrators barred a parent from school property after she complained about librarians at a Moms For Liberty meeting, adding that if she had “mental issues” they would be “plowed down with a … gun by now.” (Said parent, who avoided criminal charges, is now suing the school district.)

There’s about a month to go until the annual observance of Banned Books Week, traditionally a time for library displays amplifying the power of reading all kinds of literature. At the rate we’re going, will schools have any banned books left to celebrate?

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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