Education

In Conroe ISD the Books Are Quietly Disappearing Off the Shelves

With a growing number of titles banned across the district, some teachers in Conroe ISD were asked to box up and return thousands of books from their classroom collections.
With a growing number of titles banned across the district, some teachers in Conroe ISD were asked to box up and return thousands of books from their classroom collections. Photo by a Conroe ISD Teacher
In November 2023, Conroe ISD trustees, not unlike other Texas public school districts as of late, decided they needed to get tougher about books on their shelves.

They voted to approve revisions to the district's book review process, one of which would allow only one trustee to appeal a decision made by a reconsideration committee — a group that includes an administrator, staff member, educator and randomly selected parents assigned to determine whether or not a text met district criteria or should be banned or restricted. This setup permits trustees to have the final say of what can stay in libraries and classrooms. 

But within just a short time, there's been few formal book challenges brought forth for board review. Instead, books are being removed to meet the preferences of individual board members, parents or other individuals through "internal review" requests.

As a result, one teacher says instructors have had to return thousands of books from their classroom collections to the district. At the teacher's school alone, over 550 books, equivalent to more than $7,300 were packed and moved out of instructors' rooms.

According to district records, over 30 library titles have been banned since November, with six removed from junior high shelves, of which four are pending review at the high school level. Per February's advisory list, another ten books may be restricted or removed depending on the outcome likely decided later this month.

Within the past two school years, at least 125 of all the titles banned from the district libraries came from internal reviews. Of these removals, ten occurred in January. As for classroom collections, 112 books have been prohibited from being on classroom shelves, and five titles have been restricted to high school classrooms only.

Despite the board voting to uphold a reconsideration committee's decision to keep Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy in high school libraries, no copies of the text are in the district's current allowable collection this school year.

In a district email sent to instructors last week, an administrator requested that copies of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, Geography Club by Brent Hartinger, Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok, American Girls by Alison Umminger and Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson be removed from classroom collections.

According to the teacher, these titles were determined not to meet board policy during January's Instructional Materials Review meeting, which occurs monthly.

The instructor said that most of the recently removed books stemmed from informal complaints made by district trustee Misty Odenweller. The Houston Press contacted the district and Odenweller for comment. Sarah Blakelock, executive director of communications for Conroe ISD, said the list of books informally reviewed in November came from a community member. Blakelock did not comment further and Odenweller did not return our emailed requests for comment.

Anne Russey, co-director of the Texas Freedom To Read Project and a Katy ISD parent, said a similar issue is happening at Katy ISD as board trustees in the district agreed to field a weekly list of book complaints from a single parent and expedite these to the internal review cue.

Although most of the over 60 books this parent request to be removed remained on shelves and in classrooms, 15 were restricted to certain grade levels or banned entirely. Another four titles were initially removed before winter break but then were re-designated as "Parent & Counselor Resources."

“Why would anyone file a formal challenge if they could just send an email and district personnel could put that (title) on the list for review and remove it? There’s no point,” Russey added. “And district personnel are still using contract time to review these books internally, so how is that better?”

When the teacher asked what administrators at Conroe ISD planned to do with the recently returned titles, the instructor was told an email indicated that the books would await “disposal.”

“I don’t know if these books are sitting in a warehouse or if they’re already getting rid of them,” the teacher said. “But if they’re taking $8,000 of books from us, and there are 65 campuses, that adds up to a lot of money. People might be sick of book bannings, but are they sick of having their money wasted?”

The instructor took to Facebook to post a photo of the books packed in boxes. The teacher said at least 40 people, including Advanced Placement instructors, were begging for these titles. Frank Strong, co-director of the Texas Freedom to Read Project, re-shared the teacher's photos on X, formerly Twitter.

"Often the only way this gets noticed is if a teacher sees the books being removed or a teacher gets an email saying to remove books because it doesn't happen at a board meeting," Strong said. "It doesn't happen in an easy-to-track public way."

Shortly after the posts circulated, Conroe ISD Superintendent Dr. Curtis Null announced that the board would vote on what to do with the books at the upcoming meeting on February 20. Per the Texas Education Code, the options that may be considered include donating, recycling, disposing of or selling the items at an auction.

Blakelock confirmed that the meeting’s agenda had not been finalized and would not be posted until the week before it is scheduled to take place.
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The Conroe ISD teacher said many educators were reaching out and offering to cover the cost of shipping if they could be sent the books.
Photo by A Conroe ISD Teacher
The district had originally approved the books in these classroom collections, and most were on the state textbook adoption list. The teacher added that instructors were encouraged to use a list from Pearson Education, a publisher. The Texas Education Agency has to approve textbooks for districts to choose from, meaning that someone from the state level must have approved most of these titles.

Russey said district personnel don't indicate why a removed or restricted book does not meet district criteria. Instead of classifying whether the work is educationally unsuitable or pervasively vulgar, they only state that it does not meet the standards outlined in the district's local regulation policies for approved library and instructional materials.

This lack of information or understanding as to why a text is removed leads to a need for more clarity among teachers, who are forced to alter their lesson plans to match the revised standards.

“Teachers are just being put in this horrible position of not being supported by the district,” Russey said. “They’re being asked to do these things that are egregious violations of what they see their role as teachers and educators to be.”

The teacher had to change what was planned for the dystopian novels unit after the pool of options narrowed from four out of the five typically taught to three when A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley was removed from the classroom during the unit this school year.

According to the instructor, when it comes to teachers' self-censoring materials that aren't directly removed but may not align with policy standards, such as short stories or other learning materials, the district's tone is condescending and seems to question their professional judgment.

“A lot of teachers are just plain nervous,” the teacher said. “Teachers who have taught for years and are now substitutes — because they retired — don’t want to bring attention to themselves. They are scared.”

“We keep getting told, use your best judgment! Use your best judgment! It’s not like we’ve been using bad judgment the last ten years as we’ve taught these books,”

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“We keep getting told, use your best judgment! Use your best judgment! It’s not like we’ve been using bad judgment the last ten years as we’ve taught these books,” the instructor added. “We were using correct judgment, and the books haven’t changed, the curriculum hasn’t changed and most teachers haven’t changed. What’s changed has been the district policy and specifically the board.”

According to Blakelock, the district has always had an informal process to review library materials. If questions arise, a group of librarians is also available to review the material to determine if the books meet the selection criteria of policy standards. If the work does not, it is removed. She said this is done to support librarians and for consistency in collections.

However, parents and teachers argue that internal reviews also block information to the public and the opportunity to provide community opinion, unlike during a formal review when updates are posted online and a reconsideration committee is involved in the decision.

"It's a deliberative process. It can be frustratingly slow. I understand that. But, it is a rational, calm process that makes sense and seems to work," Strong said. "Whereas, the internal review process inherently lacks transparency, because we don't know necessarily what the criteria are, how books are being measured against the criteria or who is doing it."

He said the steps involved when reviewing a formal challenge could benefit both sides — those who have taught the book for years and those who have yet to interact much with the work. Educators can hear why concerns from a parent or community member may be associated with a certain text, and instructors can explain and give insight as to why a book is taught to the individual challenging it.

This more structured review process also weeds out requests from stakeholders in the district versus outside interest groups. Strong said information received through public information requests revealed that this is already occurring in the district.

Documents showed correspondence between Jennifer Eckhart, the former executive director of Citizens Defending Freedom, a multi-state conservative political action organization, and trustee Odenweller. Odenweller confirmed that she had cross-referenced a list of 80 books she gave to the superintendent and library specialist with one of the lists provided by Eckhart.

Odenweller returned a list of the texts in the list provided by the group that she had already looked into and said she would follow up regarding the leftover titles. Most of these books align with the titles the district banned recently.

The group had sent an earlier list in October. However, most of these works were not removed from the district. Strong said many dealt with what the group would refer to as gender ideology or gender fluidity. However, most featured zero sexual content but had gay or transgender characters included in the stories.

"You lose that community input when it's just a pressure campaign, which is really easy to do with this internal review system," he added.

Community members opposed to the recently revised formal book policy also argue that their power to have a say in whether a title can stay, be restricted or be booted off library or classroom shelves has already been limited and placed in the hands of board trustees.

A Conroe ISD parent who served on a reconsideration committee and requested she remain anonymous for this story said she was pleasantly surprised by what she thought was a fair process. She added that everyone on the committee listened to what each other had to say after reading the challenged book.

She added that she could not say the same about the board, where the conservative PAC-backed trustees — Odenweller, Melissa Dungan, and Tiffany Baumann Nelson — fought to get more titles removed.

“This is why having three uber-conservative mama bears on the school board really is concerning,” the CISD parent said. “As far as what our kids can access in the public libraries.”

As a mother of a fourth grader and sixth-grade avid reader, she put her name in the pool to serve on a reconsideration committee at the start of the school year after attending a school board meeting in 2022. During this time, the district contemplated banning The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.

She remembered during discussions that one trustee said they would be okay with removing the book because if a student wanted to read it, their parents could go out and buy it for them.

“Not everyone can afford books. This is a public education, and that is why these books have to be accessible,” she said. “Whatever they do with those removed books is important, plus it’s tax dollars. We (parents) pay for those.”

According to the teacher, most campuses have complied with the district's request. The teacher added that if the boxes of books weren't too heavy to be lifted, the instructor would bring them and place them on the trustees' chairs to show them what they've accomplished during the upcoming board meeting.

"I think there is a lot of doubt of the credibility of it, or it can't be as bad as it looks," Russey said. "I feel like everything we find out about what is happening here is as bad as it looks.

"They gave themselves power as a board to remove books, but they're not even doing that," she added. "This is not a conspiracy. It’s not fake news. This is happening, and it’s affecting real educators and real students.”
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.