By LYNETTE HAALAND, Four Points News
Parents including a Leander ISD Board Trustee have raised sharp criticism about various book selections that the school district reviewed, adopted and rolled out in August. District staff admitted missteps and vows to do better going forward when it comes to the literature it puts into the hands of students.
“I’m personally embarrassed and shocked at some of the content that I’ve seen,” said Aaron Johnson, LISD Board Trustee at last week’s Nov. 5 board meeting. “It seems to me to express a failure of our system to protect our kids and to ensure that material is appropriate.”
He is not alone. LISD received feedback from parents across the district including from the Four Points area. Steiner Ranch parent Deanna Krischke sent a letter to the board, the LISD superintendent, chief academic officer, and a curriculum executive director.
Krischke’s letter stated: “I am extremely disappointed to see some of the choices on my daughter’s reading assignment. Some of the books on the list talk about excessive drug use, one even has METH in the title, but furthermore there are books graphically referring to RAPE! I am a mother of a teenage daughter and it grosses me out. It scared me to death when I read some of the excerpts!!! I can’t imagine how scary that would be for my daughter. This seems very archaic and unacceptable to present females in this manner, especially in school!!!! I look for you to teach my daughter and my upcoming son and daughter about literature, writing skills, empowerment, content development not RAPE 101. The themes of drugs, masturbation, XXX, abortion… and mental illness are reoccuring in the suggested reading list.
Tell me WHY??!!! What literary references are we making with these choices? What happened to “To Kill a Mockingbird” or new books like the “Eye of the Elephant”. I want to see the list revised.”
Krischke has a freshman at Vandegrift and twins in first grade in private school. She and her husband hope to have their kids go to Canyon Ridge, “however if there is not some suitable resolution on the reading list, we plan on having the twins to go through 8th at St. Theresa’s and not sure about high school.”
added that “With the climate or the world of division in politics, racism, religious persecution, etc. we have access to so much literary content that could help out of youth in a positive way vs a destructive way.”
It was feedback like this that got the district’s attention and the subject was on the agenda of the Nov. 5 board meeting.
“We need to do a better job of vetting the materials and the titles. That is evident in the concerns that we have received from the community,” said Matt Bentz, chief academic officer, during the board meeting “And I take full responsibility for that, and we are going to do a better job moving forward.”
Jennifer Collins, LISD executive director of elementary curriculum, also shared at the board meeting about the review process, which was greatly affected by the pandemic.
The book selection process took place last March, April and May after the LISD board approved the resources in March.
Collins said they had challenges distributing hundreds of physical books for review and they had an over-reliance on online reviews/recommendations. Teachers and librarians were included in the review process. Parents, staff and community members also reviewed the materials.
Hard copies were on display for the public for 30 days at Vandegrift and Rouse high schools. The titles up for consideration were also listed on the district website.
Collins said in the past, there has been more “intense scrutiny, analysis, debate.” In the past, the review process also made sure titles “aligned with the values of the community, and that just wasn’t possible in March, April and May like it probably should have been,” Collins said.
But Trustee Johnson pushed back.
“Pandemic and all of those complications don’t absolve us from the responsibility of protecting our students from inappropriate material. We’ve got to be guardians of what we put in the hands of our precious children,” Johnson said.
The catalyst for changes in literature was the new Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills requirement to add more diversity in genre, themes and authors. In the spring, the district completed the high school language arts curriculum process adoption. Collins explained that the process was required ahead of the Texas Education Agency’s new TEKS requirements that began this fall of 2020.
The books in question were for new student choice book clubs, which are topic-based and are not required readings. The main themes of concern to parents were social justice and how physical contact is described in books, according to Matt Mitchell, LISD spokesperson. Titles eliciting concerns are now removed from the 15 title choices for each group.
“I’m trying to understand if it is a one-time event… what I do know is that we need to have a robust process that ensures material has been carefully reviewed,” Johnson said. The district needs material that is safe for general consumption and “widely unobjectionable,” he stated at the Nov. 5 board meeting.
Benz updated the LISD board at last week’s meeting that a comprehensive review process has been started.
Steiner mom Krischke is “somewhat satisfied” at the progress by the district.
“Suggested or required made no difference to me. Books like this presented from educators in the school system says approval to their teens whether they are ‘suggested’ or required,” Krischke said.
“In addition, besides shock value, I didn’t see where these books were really teaching any literary value,” Krischke said. “In the current climate, where women’s rights and sexual abuse our top topics, I found this completely insulting for both females and males.”
LISD shared in its “Board Briefs” on Nov. 6 that “after hearing from concerned parents about book selections for high school English Language Arts courses, Leander ISD will be reviewing materials, emphasizing the choice students and parents have if they have concerns regarding reading materials, and rolling book selections into the district’s Community Curriculum Advisory Committee’s work.”
Bentz expects the review process should be complete before winter break ahead of the release of spring student-choice book club titles.
Bentz says LISD will be more transparent about this process to be sure to “put the appropriate literature before the teacher and student.”