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Southlake, Texas, schools restrict classroom libraries after backlash over anti-racist book

Some teachers in the Carroll Independent School District blocked off their bookshelves in response to a new policy regulating "inappropriate" content.
Posted at 8:19 AM, Oct 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-08 09:19:47-04

(NBC News) - The Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, is cracking down on the books teachers keep in their classroom libraries, drawing protests from educators who say the guidelines amount to censorship.

Administrators with the suburban school system outside Fort Worth told teachers this week that they would receive mandatory training on new districtwide rules governing books — and instructions for getting rid of any that don’t meet new content standards.

The rubric for determining which books should be removed from Carroll classroom libraries asks teachers to grade books based on whether they provide multiple perspectives and to discard those that present singular, dominant narratives “in such a way that it ... may be considered offensive,” according to a copy of the training document obtained by NBC News. The guidelines are based in part on a new Texas law that prohibits schools from teaching lessons that might make students feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race.

The move comes just days after the Carroll school board reprimanded a fourth-grade teacher who had kept a copy of “This Book Is Anti-Racist” by Tiffany Jewell in her classroom library following complaints from a mother who said the book violated her family’s “morals and faith.” She had also complained about how the teacher responded to her concerns.

A school district spokeswoman didn’t respond to a message requesting comment.

Five Carroll teachers spoke to a reporter about the new book rules on the condition of anonymity, worried that they would be punished for discussing their concerns publicly. They said that the guidelines are too vague and that they are afraid of being punished by the school board because of a parent’s complaint. Four said they were thinking of leaving the district, one of the top-ranked school systems in Texas.

Carroll ISD circulated new rules about classroom libraries to teachers this week.

An English teacher at a Carroll campus wrapped their classroom library with yellow caution tape, according to a photo provided by another teacher. Photos from another classroom Thursday showed bookshelves covered with black sheets of paper and a sign that read, “You can’t read any of the books on my shelves."

“How am I supposed to know what 44 sets of parents find offensive?” a Carroll teacher asked. “We’ve been told: ‘The parents are our clients. We have to do what they want.’ And this is what they want.”

Ahead of the mandatory training, teachers began taking stock of which books might have to go based on the new rules. An elementary school teacher said she would need to get rid of “Separate Is Never Equal,” a picture book by Duncan Tonatiuh about a Mexican American family’s fight to end segregation in California in the 1940s. Another said she was setting aside “A Good Kind of Trouble” by Lisa Moore Ramée because the girl at the center of the story gets involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.

A high school English teacher said that it would take her months to review every book in her classroom and that based on the guidelines, she would most likely need to get rid of many of them. She said she no longer feels safe keeping a copy of “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, in part because it depicts racialized reactions to a police shooting, or any books by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison.

“One of the questions we’re supposed to ask is ‘Does the writer have a neutral stance on the topic?’” the teacher said. “Well, if you are Toni Morrison, how can you have a neutral stance toward racism? Now history is being depicted through this rose-colored lens, and all of this is creating a chilling effect that’s going to hurt our students.”

The fight in Southlake over which books should be allowed in schools is part of a broader national movement led by parents opposed to lessons on racism, history and LGBTQ discrimination that some conservatives have falsely branded as critical race theory. Across the country in recent months, parents groups have launched campaigns to remove books that focus on racism from schools.

In Franklin, Tennessee, a group called Moms for Liberty has been trying to get an elementary school to ban dozens of books that it says are too divisive for children. The list includes “Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington” by Frances E. Ruffin and “The Story of Ruby Bridges” by Robert Coles, about the 6-year-old Black girl who integrated a Louisiana public school in 1960.

In York County, Pennsylvania, last month, the Central York School District’s board voted to prohibit teachers from using hundreds of books that the district’s own diversity committee had recommended. After students protested, drawing national media attention and support from Bernice King, a daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., the school board reversed its decision and said it never intended to permanently ban the books.

And last week, the Katy Independent School District, a sprawling suburban system of 85,000 students outside Houston, removed award-winning graphic novels about the lives of young Black boys written by Jerry Craft after a group of parents signed a petition falsely claiming that the books promoted critical race theory. The district also canceled a meet-the-author event with Craft, but following widespread media attention, it announced that the event could be rescheduled after the district finished reviewing the books.

Kim Anderson, executive director of the National Education Association, which represents public school teachers, said her group has never seen so many reports of schools’ being pressured to ban books. She said parents and school leaders should trust teachers to provide students with age-appropriate reading materials that reflect the diversity of American students.

“It is frightening to think that we are back in the days of book banning,” Anderson said. “I guess our question is: Why don’t school board members who are taking these actions or legislators who are taking these actions believe that America’s students deserve an honest and truthful reflection of our history?”

The push to remove books from classrooms in Southlake comes more than a year into a heated fight over the way the Carroll school district handles issues of race, identity and student discipline. Southlake parents protested last fall after the mostly white but diversifying school district tried to implement a plan that would have required new lessons on diversity and new rules to crack down on discrimination. A mother sued to stop the plan, and a conservative group called Southlake Families PAC raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support school board candidates who promised to oppose the changes.

In the midst of that fight, which is the subject of a six-part NBC News podcast, a fourth grade student at Johnson Elementary School found a copy of “This Book Is Anti-Racist” in her teacher’s classroom library and decided to take it home. The book, a 2020 New York Times bestseller, includes illustrated lessons on understanding the ways racism is ingrained in society and guidance about what children can do to fight back.

The fourth grader’s mother, Sarah Muns — who had donated $1,000 to Southlake Families PAC — was outraged when she saw the book, she wrote on social media. The teacher, Rickie Farah, agreed to remove the book from her class library, but Muns was upset with how Farah handled the situation and how she treated her daughter afterward, according to Muns’ social media post. Muns elevated her complaint to senior district officials, who investigated and decided not to punish Farah.

But then, on Monday night, Carroll’s school board voted 3-2 to overturn the administration’s decision and formally reprimand Farah, who was named Johnson’s 2021 teacher of the year. Farah declined to comment, and Muns didn’t respond to a message requesting an interview.

Before she cast one of the two dissenting votes, school board member Sheri Mills issued a warning to any educators who might have been watching the meeting on the district’s live feed.

“I would like to let the teachers know, if you are worried about teaching in this school district, that you should watch this vote,” said Mills, who declined to be interviewed. “I want you to know that you are right to be worried.”

The next morning, word began to spread across the district that teachers were going to be required to go through all of the books in their classrooms and get rid of those that might upset parents. The training in determining which books should be removed is scheduled for Friday afternoon, toward the end of a districtwide staff development day, according to a schedule reviewed by NBC News. The document doesn’t specify a deadline for when teachers should remove books deemed inappropriate.

Some parents of National Junior Honor Society students got an email this week offering a chance for their children to get involved in the process: The kids would be helping middle school teachers create catalogues of every book in their classes, a volunteer opportunity that would count toward the honor society’s annual requirement to complete 10 hours of community service.

Jennifer Hough, the mother of two high school students, has been a leading voice calling for new diversity programs in the district. She said she has been hearing all week from teachers, students and fellow parents who are upset about the crackdown.

“I feel like I’m in a dystopian novel,” Hough said. “Students and people sharing pictures of teachers’ bookshelves covered and telling kids they can’t read books on their shelves. Are we really that scared of our kids’ being exposed to stuff and being challenged?”

Teachers said it isn’t the first time the district has cracked down on the content shared in classrooms. The school system told teachers this year that they could no longer use Scholastic News, a current events magazine for kids, after parents complained that its articles showed a liberal bias, according to four teachers and internal emails shared with NBC News.

Some educators said they were particularly upset that the latest push targets classroom libraries, which are meant to give kids easy access to a wide variety of reading materials, because research shows that children are more likely to become avid readers if they find books that are especially interesting to them. In recent years, before the blowback against new diversity programs, Carroll had been working to add a more diverse collection of books to classroom libraries, relying on grants and donations.

“Basically, those are all the books that I feel like we have to get rid of now,” a teacher said.

A high school English teacher said she had difficult conversations with some of her students who were upset when they saw teachers pre-emptively clearing books from their shelves or covering their libraries with caution tape.

“My classroom library provides an opportunity for students to just escape into a book that they might not find otherwise,” the teacher said. “The ability to get inside the pages of a book and walk with someone from as far away as Afghanistan. The ability to meet a person who is just like you, and even though it’s fiction, you’ve felt your whole life that you don’t belong, but he gets you, and that means everything. That’s what we’re losing.”