TISD pulls 200 books

Somewhere in an undisclosed, but secure, Tyler Independent School District location is a pallet of library books under scrutiny for possible “pervasive vulgarity” or other subject matter considered unsuitable for students to read.

The estimated 200 books are destined to become assigned summer reading for some district employees who will weigh in on the final verdict.

“We may have to use some technology to vet these as well,” Dr. Marty Crawford, TISD superintendent said. “Then by the beginning of this next school year, either the books will be removed from the school system, or they will maybe be put in a special reserve category for parent authentication, depending upon the content, or they go back on the shelf.”

Vocal critics and supporters about specific books sparked heated debates over personal freedom, community standards and even censorship during the past few months, with school board trustees and administrators taking the brunt of the ire.

“People chose to attack board members personally. They never met them — calling these good people that are called to serve on this board undoubtedly by a higher power — the worst names and likening them to pedophiles or underage groomers, making entirely false allegations against them,” board president Wade Washmon said in a February board meeting.

From the beginning

The books pulled for review at TISD are on a list of more than 850 released by state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Ft. Worth and sent to “selected superintendents.” The legislator announced his inquiry in an Oct. 25 email sent to Lily Laux, deputy commissioner of school programs at the Texas Education Agency.

Krause questioned the appropriateness of books containing, among other subjects, sexually explicit images, graphic presentation of sexual behavior that is in violation of the law or contain materials that might make students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress.”

“We didn’t get that letter,” Crawford said. “[but it] … piqued my interest whether or not we had any of those books on our shelves. I sent a couple of folks out to kind of do a little sampling of some of those books and found out we had a few on there as well.”

Crawford said he decided to take a proactive approach after discussing the issue with his network of superintendents and hearing other inquiries from other sources.

“I probably was a little naïve about it and certainly embarrassed about it and we’ve now culled down that list of 800,” he said. “Some [books] are probably harmless, some are probably concerning like … PG-13 … or more maybe R-rated, and there are some that are just incredibly shocking that we’re having to deal with.”

Crawford said he directed his “lieutenants” who supervise schools K-12 within the district to contact principals and library personnel to sample some of the books on the list.

“I haven’t read all of them. I’ve only had excerpts of some and even some reviews. Some of those are a little bit benign, and I don’t think they are as controversial as some folks like to make them out to be, but then there are some … that are pretty extreme,” he said.

The questionable books were collected in cardboard boxes and taken to storage pending further review. A list of those books was completed and released to The Tyler Loop on March 8. 

Among the titles listed are “The Year They Burned the Books,” “Roe v. Wade,” “Equal Rights,” “Bright Purple: Color Me Confused,” “Gender Danger: Survivors of Rape, Human Trafficking, and Honor Killings.” “M or F? A Novel,” “Being Jazz: My Life as a (transgender) Teen,” “The Black Flamingo,” and “So You Want to Talk About Race.”

In a Nov. 18 Tyler Council PTA meeting, Crawford told members the books came in a bundle sold to the district because they were cheaper than purchasing them individually. The district, he said, relied upon the book companies to put only appropriate books into the bundle, meeting minutes reported Crawford as saying.

He assured the organization that books would not be purchased “that way in the future,” according to the minutes.

“There’s a book on Roe versus Wade, the court case. It is on the list. It’s probably not graphic. It’s a piece of history. Just like the civil rights movement. They are historical events and are most likely benign,” Crawford said told PTA members.

Following policy

Crawford said school policy and state law give school administrators “significant discretion” to determine the content of the school libraries as long as they are consistent with the First Amendment.

According to school policy: “A district shall not remove materials from a library for the purpose of denying students access to ideas with which the district disagrees. A district may remove materials because they are pervasively vulgar or based solely upon the educational suitability of the books in question.”

Crawford said he didn’t believe creating a committee to review the libraries was necessary.

“We’ve got authority to do that. It’s not like we put a committee together for every decision that is made,” he explained. “The board is behind me going through this process.”

The board president addressed that issue during a Feb. 21 speech to the board.

“Our superintendent, thankfully, had already begun pulling those books [before volatile public comments] as he’s authorized to do by policy,” Washmon said. “And as more information emerged about other books, we pulled that content.

“I was embarrassed, along with our superintendent and the rest of the board that any such book could have entered into our walls, however, when the time came to act, we acted as quickly as any organization could have.”

Crawford said the content of the books pulled for review involve sensitive subjects that may not be appropriate for school libraries.

“We’re not talking about Hemmingway or Walt Whitman or some of the classics,” he said. “It’s almost like we’re trying to match what’s on their [students’] phones — which we have no control over – to get them interested in reading … just don’t think that’s the school’s responsibility for that access.

“They have got plenty of access for those things from other sources. That’s what we’re talking about. We’re not trying to go after Shakespeare. We’re not trying to go after individual authors. It’s with the content of the books. It’s the pervasive vulgarity.”

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Vanessa E. Curry is a journalist with nearly 35 years of experience as a writer, editor and instructor. She earned a B.S. degree in Mass Communication from Illinois State University and a MSIS degree from The University of Texas at Tyler with emphasis on journalism, political science and criminal justice. She has worked newspaper in Marlin, Henderson, Tyler and Jacksonville, Texas as well as in Columbia Tennessee. Vanessa also was a journalism instructor at the UT-Tyler and Tennessee Tech University. Her writing has been recognized by the State Bar of Texas, Texas Associated Press Managing Editors, Dallas Press Club, and Tennessee Press Association. She currently is working on publishing two books: "Lies and Consequences: The Trials of Kerry Max Cook," and "A Gold Medal Man, A biography of Kenneth L. "Tug" Wilson.