HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A new study by PEN America, a free speech advocacy group, found that Texas leads the nation when it comes to banned books, with more than 800 restricted titles across 22 school districts throughout the state. Researchers found that most of the books on the banned list are titles centered on race, racism, abortion, and LGBTQ+ issues.
"What we're seeing is really unprecedented in recent memory for our organization and book bans are something we've worked on for many decades. This is a completely new level of phenomenon that we're seeing. A lot of organizations also sprung up that are pushing for these book bans," Summer Lopez, chief program officer of Free Expression Programs for PEN America, said.
Advocates said book bans are nothing new, but it's something that has been reignited in recent months amid the heated debate over critical race theory. Some Republican leaders and parents have pressured school districts to review or remove books they've deemed as inappropriate.
Last October, Representative Matt Krause of Fort Worth sent a list of approximately 850 books to school districts, asking how many were available on their campuses. The Texas Tribune reported that the move spurred parents to challenge and successfully remove books they believe are not appropriate and "pornographic."
A month after, Gov. Greg Abbott told state education officials to develop statewide standards preventing "pornography" and "other obscene content in Texas public schools," citing two memoirs about LGBTQ characters, which include graphic images and descriptions of sex, according to the Texas Tribune.
That same month, Katy ISD made headlines after removing nine books from school libraries during the 2021-2022 school year. This came after a public outcry from a group of parents during a school board meeting, claiming the content is too explicit for their children.
"It's understandable that parents might have concerns about certain content being introduced to their children. I think the problem is when you decide that your concerns about your own children mean that these books should be restricted for everyone else's children as well," Lopez said.
According to the study, PEN America recorded 1,648 unique titles that have been banned at schools across the country between July 2021 and June 2022. Out of this list, 22% has sexual content in them, 41% feature LGBTQ+ characters and issues, 40% highlight characters of color, 21% address issues of race and racism, 10% have themes of rights and activism, and four percent include stories involving religious minorities.
"I think it can have a really devastating effect for students who see themselves in those stories. It's the importance of seeing yourself reflected in books. Most of the authors of these books say they wrote them in part because when they were children, they didn't see themselves in stories," Lopez said. "It's essential to see diversity in stories and perspectives. That's part of learning, empathy, critical thinking, and what it means to live in a pluralistic democracy."
Some students have taken matters into their own hands after the surge in censored materials. According to Axios, one group in Fort Bend ISD launched their own book club, aiming to create a safe space for people to discuss the challenged books. It's a dilemma Lopez doesn't see going anywhere anytime soon.
"Unfortunately, I think a lot of this conversation has now been politicized and so, I anticipate that with this upcoming election period, we're not going to see this slow down," she said. "We've also been tracking legislation introduced in states around the country to restrict what can be taught in both the K-12 and college levels. We've called these 'educational gag orders' and they've vastly increased over the last few years."
On Thursday, Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis joined the Harris County Public Library to inform the community that 600 out of the 800 banned books in Texas are available for check-out. This comes during Banned Books Week, which is held every year during the last week of September.
"We will not allow them to whitewash history to fit a particular political narrative. I think it's a good opportunity to call attention to the fact that we don't want large segments of our history just wiped out," Ellis said. "Texas has become ground zero for banning books."
"This is so people can share different perspectives and ideas. That's the beauty of libraries. We can bring all of that together and have a platform where we can be the voice for those who may not have one," Edward Melton, director of Harris County Public Library, said.
Krause's office did not return a request for comment., but Gov. Abbott's press secretary Renae Eze sent ABC13 the following statement:
"Parents have been losing their voices when it comes to their children. When it comes to the classroom, Texas parents have every right to know what their children are being taught and have a say in their child's education. And during COVID and remote learning, parents saw that many schools were more focused on indoctrination instead of education. Schools need to get away from pushing political agendas and get back to fundamentals - reading, writing, math, and science. Governor Abbott continues working to ensure Texas children receive the best education by restoring parents as the primary decision-makers over their child's education and healthcare. Because parents matter."