An inquiry initiated in October by state Rep. Matt Krause appears to be the driving force behind demands for more transparency in how Tyler school administrators and city librarians select books for children.
Since then, more than a dozen speakers — most of whom advocate removing certain books — also have questioned governing boards about policies and procedures and filing official objections at Tyler public school board and Tyler Public Library meetings.
Finding answers to their questions appears to have added to their frustrations because:
-Although specific policies and procedures are posted on respective websites — Tyler Independent School District and Tyler Public Library — some citizens may find it difficult to navigate those sites to find them.
-Texas law does not allow school trustees to respond to questions posed during the public comment portion of the meeting.
-School and city officials denied repeated media requests for interviews or access to more details on the issue.
In a written statement read aloud at a Nov. 15 school board meeting, superintendent Dr. Marty Crawford assured audience members at the Tyler Independent School District meeting that administrators are discussing “the issue at hand” in reference to the statewide inquiry.
“We’re doing our job,” he said, during a subsequent board meeting.
Exactly what they are doing, however, is unclear.
Meanwhile, a city spokesperson has denied direct access to personnel for interviews, although an internal memo obtained by The Tyler Loop asserts the library’s rights and freedoms presented in the U.S. Constitution and the American Library Association’s Bill of Rights and Freedom to Read statement.
“The Library believes that no individual or group of individuals reserves the right to make judgement [sic] on what other persons have access to,” librarian Ashely Taylor said in the memo.
Krause, a Republican from Fort Worth, is the chairman of the Texas House Committee on General Investigations. He announced the inquiry in an Oct. 25 email sent to Lily Laux, deputy commissioner of school programs at the Texas Education Agency, and “selected superintendents.”
He prefaced a list of questions with a statement noting school officials in Carroll, Spring Branch, Lake Travis, Leander and Katy had removed books from their libraries or classroom due to objections from students, parents and taxpayers.
Krause attached a list of about 850 books and requested information to determine if the district had any of those listed books, how many copies were purchased of each, where on campus were those books located within the district and how much the district has spent on acquiring those books.
He also requested the same information on any book pertaining to the topic of “human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), sexually explicit images, graphic presentations of sexual behavior that is in violation of the law, or contain material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
Although it is unclear whether TISD received a letter from Krause or Gov. Greg Abbott, Crawford said in his statement the district is aware of the legislative committee and the Texas governor’s statewide inquiries “concerning appropriateness of library and curricular materials.”
“The Board and District Administration are in agreement with our community that resources, curriculum products, and classroom instruction should be in alignment with local, public expectations and within State of Texas standards as set forth by the Texas Legislature, the State Board of Education, and Texas Education Agency,” he said.
According to information posted on TISD’s website, the board relies upon district professional staff to select and acquire instructional resources with the objective of presenting a variety of balanced views about controversial issues so that “students have an opportunity to develop, under guidance, skills in critical analysis and in making informed judgments in their daily lives.”
An online search of TISD’s library catalogs at Tyler High and Legacy High schools revealed a variety of books listed under the keywords Bible, homosexuality, sexual assault, sex, slavery and pedophile.
Type in the word “Bible” at Tyler High’s library page and a student can select from a list of 26 books including titles: “The Holy Bible”; “Inside Islam: A Sweeping Story of One of the World’s Great Faiths”; “Evolution: Opposing Viewpoints” or “The Baby Bible: The Complete Guide to Your Baby’s First Year.”
Type in the word “slavery,” at the same webpage, and a student can select from a list of 86 books including titles: “The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery”; “The Black Man in America 1619-1790” or “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
At Legacy High School, typing in the word “sex” or “homosexuality” brings up a total of 147 books including the titles: “I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor Story of Sexual Assault”; and “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” — a graphic novel about growing up with a remote father who attempts to hide his homosexuality while managing a funeral home.
Type in the word “slavery” under Legacy High’s page and students can choose from nearly 100 titles including “Up for Sale: Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery”; or “The Odyssey of an African Slave.”
Under TISD’s policies, administrators, teachers, library media specialists, other district personnel, parents and community members may recommend resources. They also may formally challenge an educational resource — books or other media material — they believe to be inappropriate.
A committee appointed by the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction — currently Dr. Christy Hanson — must review the challenge source in its entirety and submit a written report of its finding to school officials and the complainant.
Hanson was unavailable for comment when contacted on Friday and did not return telephone calls.
Equally unclear is whether TISD has received a formal complaint. In a Nov. 17 release, members of the East Texas Freedom Coalition claimed to have filed an open records request for all information concerning 17 specific book titles including “Lawn Boy,” which describes pedophilia, and “Red, White and Royal Blue,” which has bisexual and homosexual themes.
The request also asked for the names of staff members and minor children who have checked any of the books listed in the release.
Christin Bentley, the founder and president of the coalition, told school board trustees at the Nov. 15 meeting that she viewed a message on Twitter in which she said a school librarian “bragged” and “celebrated” the inclusion of the book “All Boys Aren’t Blue” — a series of essays by author George Johnson about growing up a queer, Black man.
“I am so angered by my own investigation into the books that are at Legacy High School,” Bentley said.
In a release two days later, the coalition claimed TISD officials removed “Lawn Boy” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” from the school’s library.
“The Texas Freedom Coalition is committed to bringing attention to the sexual exploitation, sexual grooming and sexual abuse that occurs when minors experience realistic fiction that depicts adult sexual themes in literature and strongly believe that books containing adult sexual content should not be made available to minors or celebrated in our public schools,” according to the release.
Efforts to reach Bentley and Sarah Fields, another coalition member listed on the release, were unsuccessful. They did not return telephone messages left by The Tyler Loop and no one responded to a message sent through the organization’s Facebook page.
Tyler Public Library
Tyler is one of the latest Texas cities experiencing groups of citizens confronting public library staff and board members about current selection policies and challenges.
The Texas Tribune reported in December that the Llano County Library closed for three days while staff members conducted a “thorough review” of all children’s books in their library. Commissioners there wanted to ensure all materials are age appropriate.
Recent challenges at the Victoria Public Library and Irving Public Library proved to be unsuccessful. Irving’s mayor told the Tribune that although he did not like parts of one book, he understood the library staff’s decision to keep that book in circulation, according to the article.
Nineteen people attended the Tyler Public Library board meeting on Dec. 8 to address an apparent lack of transparency in procuring materials and to express displeasure with a perceived imbalance on certain topics such as race, religion and politics.
Although a representative from The Tyler Loop did not attend the meeting, it did obtain a copy of the unapproved minutes.
“One biased agenda”
Speaker Lauren Snyder said she believes the library “pushed one biased agenda” by focusing on Democrats and pro-Black Lives Matter material without offering opposite viewpoints. She said when she asked for assistance to find books on Donald Trump, there were only four.
A Tyler Public Library online search conducted by The Tyler Loop for “Donald Trump” revealed 187 results including books about the former president or written by him.
Another speaker, Jackson Hug, claimed “the library has fallen to the liberal agenda and Critical Race Theory” and the selection is “biased” away from traditional values.
Under the Tyler Public Library policy, the city librarian is chiefly responsible for developing the city’s collection of books, but the responsibility involves a committee. Selection is based on “the experience and knowledge of staff selectors; familiarity with the community, its needs and interests; holdings and availability of other area library resources; and the library’s existing collection and its materials budget,” according to information posted on the library’s website.
Efforts to interview city librarian Ashley Taylor personally have been unsuccessful. The Tyler Loop submitted a list of questions for Taylor, but responses were provided by public information officer Adriana Rodriguez. Most of the information Rodriguez provided were links to the library’s website.
Julie Goodgame, the city’s director of marketing and communication, also responded to the inquiry, telling The Tyler Loop “respectfully, Library staff has nothing more to add at this time.”
No one at the library responded to a message sent via the city’s website messaging feature.
However, in an internal memo, Taylor stood by the library’s constitutional rights and the ALA’s Bill of Rights and Freedom to Read Statement. “Collection Development is the responsibility of the Library and Librarians in effort to serve all constituents within its community. The Library trusts in the public to make sound judgement [sic] in deciphering information and deciding on what reading material is right for them and their families,” Taylor wrote.
Speakers at the December meeting in Tyler also questioned board meetings about the procedure for challenging a book or other materials at the library.
Under current policy, library patrons can file a formal complaint — request for reconsideration — by filling out a form provided on the library’s website.
Some speakers requested more citizens be involved in purchasing materials, reconsiderations and withdrawal. Sara Maynard proposed a posted list of materials being considered for purchase to encourage more public involvement in the process. Such lists, another speaker said, are posted at Rusk County’s library.
Tyler library board member Dee Chambless said she has repeatedly requested posting a list of informally challenged materials but was denied. She said she has submitted books for possible inclusion into the library. She also believes publications provided by the library committee as “all leaning left.”
Deputy City Manager Stephanie Franklin said that “everyone has differing opinions on books,” that’s why staff are hired to review purchases.
Providing a list before purchasing does not follow standards adopted by the American or Texas library associations, she said.
Tyler attorney Deborah Pullum said the opinions and questions expressed during the board meeting will be forwarded to city officials. She said the city intends to be transparent and communicate about the process.
The next Tyler ISD regular session is Monday, Jan. 24, at 7 p.m. at Jim Plyler Instructional Complex; the next Tyler Public Library board meeting is scheduled Wednesday, Jan. 26 from 4:30-6:30 p.m. at City Hall, 212 N. Bonner Avenue in Tyler. The agenda is posted online.
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.
Originally from Jacksonville, Texas, Linda Smith lives in Whitehouse, Texas, and studies Library Science at Texas Woman’s University. Linda loves reading, finding her next favorite vegan meal and going on adventures with her fiancé.
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