2021 recap: Controversial books under scrutiny at LISD

By LILLY CHANDLER, Hill Country News 

Leander ISD has been under scrutiny about some of its high school book club books over the past year.

Concerned parents claimed LISD reading lists included books that push a particular social agenda or featuring pornographic material. There were several demonstrations and protests in 2021 prior to board meetings. One woman provided comments against the books while bringing a dildo and harness into the meeting to illustrate her point.

Defenders of the books featured in the clubs contend that they allow students of diverse backgrounds and life experiences to read stories with which they can identify, find representation and give them the opportunity to “see themselves” in the literature they select. They and several trustees repeatedly noted there was misinformation about the staff, the books and the district alike. They also argued some of the critics’ allegations of pornographic material was actually objections to any sort of representation of LGBTQ individuals.

After initial review cycles, some books from the 2020-2021 reading list were found to be questionable and were pulled. Additionally, the LISD academic team went to work to begin establishing strong lines of communication so that parents and teachers were fully aware of the books being offered to students.

On April 28, some parents held their students out on a S.I.C.K. day — an acronym for Stop Indoctrinating our Children K-12. The protest’s Facebook event page said the goal of those parents and students was to demand the district provide “neutral classrooms focused on core academics, a teacher code of ethics and professional responsibility and a curriculum development policy in order to respect parental rights and transparency.”

The debate soon received national attention, with Carmen Maria Machado, the author of one of the books under review called “In the Dream House,” wrote a letter to New York Times about the importance of her memoir to include dialogues and experiences to young adults.

“While our books may contain passages that are potentially uncomfortable, challenging or even offensive, exposure to our books is vital to expanding minds, affirming experiences, creating appreciation for the arts and building empathy — in short, respecting the adults that the students in Leander, Texas, will soon become,” Machado wrote for the New York Times.

Former Place 5 LISD Trustee, Jim MacKay, resigned from the board in September, citing the controversy over both the books under review and the district’s COVID-19 mitigation tactics as his reason.

MacKay said his decision was informed by the district’s lax oversight of various literature programs — some of which he called pornographic — and the apparent unwillingness of the board as a whole to hold LISD Superintendent Dr. Bruce Gearing accountable for that and other things.

“I cannot, and quite frankly will not, support a superintendent or board that turns a blind eye to the incredible harm we are potentially doing to our innocent children,” he said in a letter to the community. “I have failed in my promise to protect our most vulnerable.”

Gov. Greg Abbott joined the discussion in Nov., when he called on the Texas Education Agency, Texas State Library and Archives Commission and State Board of Education to block books with “overtly sexual” content from schools, including school libraries.

After review from the district’s Community Curriculum Advisory Committee, 11 titles will no longer be available to the High School Student-Choice book clubs, including the novel “In the Dream House.” and the graphic novel versions of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Lottery.”

Despite this action, LISD faced pushback from the Williamson County Commissioners Court. On Dec. 13, commissioners voted 4-1 to withhold $8.7 million in federal CARES Act money from the Leander and Round Rock school districts because of what a commissioner called “smut in the rooms of kids.”

The next week, commissioners agreed to use some of their remaining federal CARES Act funds to reimburse the Leander and Round Rock school districts for some expenses they incurred as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The court approved roughly $5 million in funding for Round Rock ISD on the condition that the reimbursement requests follow the guidelines laid down by the county and that the district follow its own guidelines for reconsideration of objectionable books. They approved $3.7 million for LISD under similar conditions.

Hill Country News has been serving Cedar Park, Leander and Northwest Austin since 1968.