Experts say Texas' excessive ban on books is 'harmful to students'

ByBrian Lopez, The Texas Tribune
Monday, September 19, 2022
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Across the country, more books have been challenged and removed as religious and conservative groups target LGBTQ and race issues.

HOUSTON, Texas -- Texas banned more books from school libraries this past year than any other state in the nation, targeting titles centering on race, racism, abortion and LGBTQ representation and issues, according to a new analysis by PEN America, a nonprofit organization advocating for free speech.

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The report released on Monday found that school administrators in Texas have banned 801 books across 22 school districts, and 174 titles were banned at least twice between July 2021 through June 2022. PEN America defines a ban as any action taken against a book based on its content after challenges from parents or lawmakers.

The most frequent books removed included "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe, which depicts Kobabe's journey of gender identity and sexual orientation; "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison; "Roe v. Wade: A Woman's Choice?" by Susan Dudley Gold; "Out of Darkness" by Ashley Hope Pérez, which follows a love story between a Mexican American teenage girl and a Black teen boy in 1930s East Texas; and "All Boys Aren't Blue" by George M. Johnson, a personal account of growing up black and queer in Plainfield, New Jersey.

SEE RELATED STORY: Texas school district is removing, reviewing dozens of challenged books

"This censorious movement is turning our public schools into political battlegrounds, driving wedges within communities, forcing teachers and librarians from their jobs, and casting a chill over the spirit of open inquiry and intellectual freedom that underpin a flourishing democracy," Suzanne Nossel, PEN America's chief executive officer, said in a statement.

Across the country, PEN America found that 1,648 unique titles had been banned by schools. Of these titles, 41% address LGBTQ themes or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ. Another 40% of these books contains protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color.

Summer Lopez, the chief program officer of free expression at PEN America, said what's notable about these book bans is that most are on books that families and children can elect to read, not any required reading.

Florida and Pennsylvania followed Texas as the states with the most bans, respectively. Florida banned 566 books, and 457 titles were banned in Pennsylvania, where a majority of books were removed from one school district in York County, which is known as being more conservative.

Lopez said her organization could not recall a previous year with as many reported book bans.

SEE RELATED STORY: Humble ISD parents form group to remove 'dirty books' from school libraries

"This rapidly accelerating movement has resulted in more and more students losing access to literature that equips them to meet the challenges and complexities of democratic citizenship," Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America's free expression and education programs and the lead author of the report, said in a statement.

Texas' book challenges can be traced to last October, when state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, sent a list of some 850 books about race and sexuality - including Kobabe's - to school districts asking for information about how many of those are available on their campuses. This one move spurred parents to challenge and successfully remove books they believe are not appropriate and "pornographic."

The Keller Independent School District in Tarrant County was one of the first to successfully remove "Gender Queer" from school libraries after a group of moms complained it was "pornographic."

This recent series of book bans has unfolded against the backdrop of a national debate over critical race theory, a college-level academic discipline that examines how racism is embedded in the country's legal and structural systems. It is not taught in Texas' public schools. However, some conservative politicians and parents have assigned the term "CRT" to dismiss efforts in public schools to incorporate a more comprehensive and inclusive public school curriculum, something they equate to indoctrination.

Conservatives in some school districts have used the book bans and rancor over social studies teachings to help bring rally support and attracted unprecedented money to win school board seats campaigning under the promise to clear out "critical race theory" and "pornographic" materials from schools. In the midst of continuing Republican-led political fights over how issues related to race, gender and sex are allowed to be taught in public schools, Gov. Greg Abbott has put a promise to increase parental rights at the center of his reelection platform.

However, Texas parents already have the right to remove their child temporarily from a class or activity that conflicts with their religious beliefs. They have the right to review all instructional materials, and state law guarantees them access to their student's records and to a school principal or administrator. Also, school boards must establish a way to consider complaints from parents.

PEN America's analysis also found that these bans have been largely driven by organized groups formed over the last year to combat "pornographic" and "CRT" materials in school.

"The work of groups organizing and advocating to ban books in schools is especially harmful to students from historically marginalized backgrounds, who are forced to experience stories that validate their lives vanishing from classrooms and library shelves," Friedman said.

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