Conroe ISD Follows Suit Of Other Local District And Passes Revised Book Review Policy

Trustees Stacey Chase, Melissa Dungan and Theresa Wagaman with board president Skeeter Hubert at Tuesday night's board meeting.
Trustees Stacey Chase, Melissa Dungan and Theresa Wagaman with board president Skeeter Hubert at Tuesday night's board meeting. Photo by Faith Bugenhagen
Following in the footsteps of nearby school districts, Conroe Independent School District implemented changes to its book review process on Tuesday night – placing further restrictions on what can and cannot stay on the shelves.

After re-evaluating the proposal initially introduced by Trustee Tiffany Baumann Nelson last month, it passed on a 5-2 vote with fellow board members Stacey Chase and Datren Williams opposed to these revisions.

The new measure mirrors aspects of Katy ISD’s book review process, such as clearly defining what is deemed as “sexually explicit” content. It also allows a single trustee to appeal any decision made by a district reconsideration committee – a group of community members and educators assigned to review formal book challenges.

However, this portion of the policy gives more authority and is more restrictive as Katy ISD requires two board members – not one – to overrule a committee’s choice. Trustees could also challenge a committee’s decision even if the individual who filed the initial complaint about the book did not.

Since Katy ISD enacted this policy, the district has paused book purchases, kept books in storage and removed books from library shelves – many of which largely feature LGBTQ+ characters or content.

During public comments, Conroe ISD parents and students shared their concerns about this occurring due to the new policy changes.

Tuesday night brought the first glimpse into these worries, as board trustees also took up a third-level review of the graphic novel for young teenagers and adolescents, Drama by Raina Telgemeier.

Rachel Walker, a Conroe ISD mother, engagement specialist and chair of community outreach for Woodlands Pride, said the book was challenged because it featured kissing between couples – including a boy and a boy.

A parent initially brought forth the review, as it came before the vote on Tuesday. However, Walker said this shows how the policy opens up rooms for books that feature LGBTQ+ characters and relationships to face challenges under the guise of the new "sexually explicit" guidelines.

“It’s going to open up a Pandora’s box, and they’re going to start having to remove other books,” Walker said. “If we’re removing a book for kissing, then we should get ready for a bunch of books to be removed.”

“No one wants porn in the library, right? That’s such a false narrative. No parent wants that – even a parent who is advocating for their LGBTQ+ kids or even me who doesn’t censor what their kids read at all,” she added.

Walker attended the meeting to speak against the removal of Drama during public comment. She told the board that she read the book with her fifth grade daughter, who asked her to purchase more from the author.

After several failed motions, the board voted 5-2 to move the graphic novel to their high school library collections.
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Rachel Walker, Conroe ISD Parent and board member of Woodlands Pride was among a group of public speakers against the policy and the removal of the graphic novel Drama.
Photo by Faith Bugenhagen
During the opening of the debate on the policy, Williams questioned why the trustees were adding to the policy's language if the Texas Education Code, which they already followed, indicates what harmful and obscene content is. He added that revisions to the district's current book review process undermine the trust board members have in educators' abilities.

“This essentially equates to us continuing to censor books and give the board authority to circumvent or to take the role as more of a lead subject matter expert relative to library materials and books,” Williams said. “I think we should leave it to the professionals and have some sense of competence and trust in our administration, our librarians, and all of our educational professionals.”

“I just think it sets a dangerous precedent, and I don’t want to go down that road,” he added.

Chase echoed Williams’s sentiment and brought up Williams's argument from an earlier board meeting regarding the district’s community members’ interest in the matter. When Chase asked, Conroe ISD Superintendent Dr. Curtis Null confirmed that the district houses as many as 1.2 million books across its many libraries, has only removed 125 books and had three formal challenges of books this year.

Chase added that even if the board members take into account the emails they've been receiving for the last two weeks from a community member who sends them a book a day that the individual deems inappropriate, which roughly totals 400 books – these numbers are less than 1 percent of the total books in the district.

“What I find hard to swallow here is the amount of hours we spend talking about the 1 percent of books are really crazy. Like, does that not seem crazy?” Chase said. “And now we want to adopt a policy that’s going to expand the distance and those hours even more? That seems completely at odds with reality.”

Chase also repeated Williams's concerns and asked why it was significant to make these changes if they are already outlined in the state's education code. Several trustees also challenged this revision citing the new law, House Bill 900, potentially on the horizon.

HB 900 would require book vendors to rate the content they sell based on the level of “sexually explicit” material featured before having the ability to sell to local schools. The trustees that support this clause said it is largely because they can take preventative action before it takes effect.

They added that despite the district's adherence to the Texas Education Code's requirements, these were not outlined in its local guidelines.

“We’re the ultimate authority in this district. We were elected to be the ultimate authority,” Trustee Misty Odenweller said. “And our situation is that we are legally responsible for all things.”

Williams spoke to Board President Skeeter Hubert before the vote was taken and told him to beware of what he was bringing upon himself and the board.

Hubert was the deciding vote due to the board’s makeup, which has three seats occupied by conservative voices from the “Mama Bears” or Trustee Melissa Dungan, Nelson and Openweller, who ran as a slate during last November’s elections.

According to Walker, the conversations surrounding book bans evolved within the past couple of years, around when this group – who campaigned on the subject – was elected. Before this, they occurred but were rare in the district.

Last school year, Conroe ISD banned 59 books, the most among greater Houston area districts.

“I think the consensus among some – and possibly within the district – is that this book stuff is distracting – and if they can give a little in certain areas, perhaps it will go away, but it’s not going to go away,” Walker said. “These policies aren’t going to be enough for them (conservatives on the board).”
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.