Education

Conroe ISD Trustees Swat Titles Off Classroom Shelves Again Amid Charges of A "Racist" Policy

Dede Fox, former Montgomery County poet laureate, introduced herself before the board on Tuesday night.
Dede Fox, former Montgomery County poet laureate, introduced herself before the board on Tuesday night. Photo by Faith Bugenhagen
It may sound like the beginning of a joke: The former Montgomery County poet laureate, a Montgomery County Memorial Library System collection development coordinator and a district parent walk into a school board meeting.

But Tuesday night's punchline was nothing but disappointing for those who wanted to see certain Nobel Peace and Pulitzer Prize-winning books restored to Conroe ISD classrooms.

Despite the efforts of Dede Fox, Andrea Yang, and Erin Miller — as well as Theresa Neman, an AP English teacher for the district — the majority of the CISD board voted once again not to bring 19 titles back to classroom shelves.

Board president Skeeter Hubert and trustees Melissa Dungan, Tiffany Baumann Nelson, and Misty Odenweller voted to uphold a previous decision by level two hearing officer Gregg Colschen not to reinstate these texts as instructional materials.

This prompted board member Datren Williams to denounce the board's decision to remove the books. "We have an inherently racist policy," Williams asserted. "An inherently — this is a — bigoted policy. That's how I'm interpreting it."

Williams took particular issue with the titles selected. He said that 47 percent of the books up for reconsideration were by authors of color or featured LGBTQ+ content, adding that texts by Black authors, such as The Color Purple by Alice Walker, were on bestseller or top-rated lists.

“I know we say it’s subjective, but it’s almost like we are profiling or specifically targeting,” Williams said. “We can’t be ignorant to that. We can’t be naive as educators and not see what I see.”

Nelson and Odenweller took offense to Williams’s comments. At one point Nelson quipped, “What are you suggesting that somehow the committee has this underground pact with each other to remove racially and discriminatory authors?” Odenweller added that it was not acceptable for Williams to be calling those who evaluated these books racist. Williams defended his comments, reiterating that he had said the policy was the issue.

Neman, who had proxy Deborah Leiber present her case, initially spearheaded filing complaints to reinstate these titles after the board laid out procedures community members could follow if they wanted to protest a book removal at a meeting in March.

After trustees established this option, Neman posted on a community-led Facebook group to reach out to those interested in fighting for texts removed from classroom collections at the start of this school year.

The 19 titles reconsidered by the board on Tuesday were part of a wave of removals via informal instructional material reviews that determined these texts violated educational suitability standards outlined in district policy.

“I mean, what are we doing here? These are classics. We are removing these books and then scoffing like, 'Oh, well, they [students] can look at the other half of the choices,'" Trustee Stacey Chase said when discussing several removed titles that frequently appear on the AP test list.

“Well, until we remove those. Removing those just based on our own feelings of uncomfortableness, our own moral sensibilities?” Chase noted. “That’s doing a disservice to our students.”

Chase joined trustees Williams and Theresa Wagaman to vote against upholding the level two decision. Chase made four motions, attempting to reinstate the titles presented in each of the four hearings. Williams seconded these motions, but each failed.

Those in attendance Tuesday night were overwhelmingly in support of returning the books to classrooms’ shelves and curriculum. Juliet Loftis, an incoming freshman at College Park High School, listed some titles featured in the hearings.

Slaughterhouse-Five, My Sister’s Keeper, The Bluest Eye, Perks of Being a Wallflower, We Are the Ants, Where the Crawdad Sings, Beloved, Homegoing, Brave New World, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Girl in Translation, I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Salvage the Bones, Sold, The Color Purple, The Hate U Give, The Kite Runner and The Underground Railroad.”

Loftis questioned why trustees felt the need to protect students from letters on a page. “I would like to ask you why you control what I read?” she said. “Put these books back on shelves and hold true to the intention of our district when we say all means all."

Brenda Cooper, who previously served on the formal reconsideration committee tasked with considering the library titles Lily and Dunkin and Some Girls Bind, described reports of derogatory or discriminatory behavior shared with her by students at The Woodlands High School.

“The real threats to our students don't lie within the pages of books,” Cooper said. “The dangers our students are actually facing are in the hallway and classrooms of our schools.”

Others who flocked to the podium emphasized the need for texts removed through the informal review process to be considered in their entirety, not through out-of-context excerpts.

Dr. Jarod Lambert, director of information systems, confirmed those defending the titles' concerns that, according to Colschen's paperwork from the level two hearings, most of those on the committees were not reading the books.

“I can tell you it is impossible to evaluate a book's literary and educational merit with such a process. The new informal process facilitates censorship,” Yang asserted during her 10-minute case presentation. “Was it devised to appease a small number of activists with a personal political or theological agenda?

Yang also questioned whether the creation of the process was a knee-jerk reaction to House Bill 900, a new state law that aims to keep what the lawmakers refer to as sexually explicit material out of school libraries.

She noted that the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down part of the law requiring book vendors to rate titles as sexually explicit. The Little V. Llano County case, which determined that a public library could not take titles off the shelves solely because of objectionable content, was also mentioned during the hearings.

Lieber referenced the difference between the removal rates by informal and formal review committees — 79 percent to 21 percent. Formal review committees are used when books are formally challenged by a community member or other individual who files a formal review request.

During Miller's defense, she took most issue with administrators, who are paid by the district, serving on the informal instructional materials review committees. She requested that district parents be added to the committees.

Per documents obtained by the Houston Press, 26 employees served on the instructional materials review committees from September 2023 to March 2024, some of them only reviewing one time, others on multiple occasions.

At least four participants worked on the elementary level or are involved in early childhood development, yet they were asked to review middle and high school-level texts. Others who served have backgrounds in science, health and physical education, math, social studies, fine arts and special education.

Some individuals were involved in language arts on the committees, three of which were at the elementary school level. Only one district librarian, who doubles as a media specialist, served several times on the committees.

“I ask you to consider that merely because a group of administrators made a decision, does the decision of the decision-makers automatically make the decision, correct?” Lieber asked. “Can administrators act with good intentions and still generate a wrong outcome?”

The source of what triggered the informal review of the roughly 5,000 books — which the 19 titles were a part of — in classroom collections was also called into question. Lambert asserted that the texts were pulled from classroom collections by the committees to ensure that the titles available complied with district policy.

However, Fox challenged Lambert’s explanation.

“I don’t know what the truth is, but I can tell you what the perception is among the community,” Fox said. “That this list of books came off a political, religious list and that these books were of special interest because some religious and political groups didn’t think they should be in the schools.

Fox referred to a list sent to district trustees and staff by Jennifer Eckhart, the former executive director of Citizens Defending Freedom, a multi-state conservative political organization. Lieber added to Fox’s speculation regarding the source of these removals, referencing a separate series of emails from community members concerned with certain titles.

“Our district initiated the informal reviews that led to the removal appeals tonight because of the informally emailed list of six constituents,” Lieber said. “Five of whom do not have children in the district, one of whom is a board member [Odenweller] with influence over district committees by default. Consistent emails to district employees checking on the status of the removal of these books likely influenced the decisions of the committee.”

According to Miller, since April 2022, political activists, former and current trustees, notably Dungan, Nelson and Odenweller, and other members of the Mama Bears Rising — a collective of conservative mothers — have been at the center of policy changes and book removals.

Nelson made it a point to mention that some of the titles which were removed from classroom collections and as options to teach in district curriculum, were still available in campus libraries.
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Dr. Jarod Lambert, director of information systems, presented on behalf of the school district.
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Lambert repeatedly stuck to the explanation that the choices made by the committees were based on educational suitability and largely made based on not meeting district criteria related to sexual references and content of that nature.

Lambert used the example of The Color Purple featuring an explicit term for female genitalia and a graphic rape scene. Williams pushed back on the selectiveness of removals based on unsuitable content, asking Lambert if texts on the removed lists included titles that had racially derogatory terms in them.

“Did Mark Twain make the cut list? Williams said. “Because the N-word seems like it would have a whole lot more damage and negative impact than the P-word.”

Fox had challenged these reasons while defending a separate removed title, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, arguing that content that alludes to or includes sexual violence is not titillating but informative for those at certain age levels to read.

Those requesting the books be restored also pointed out that Colschen did not dispute their arguments that what some may refer to as controversial subjects contained literary merit and did not go against standards outlined by the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills guidelines.

Before taking a vote, Dungan proposed revisiting the instructional materials policy to determine whether the board could change the procedures involved in these informal reviews.

Wagaman supported taking a look at the policy, as she said it was obvious taking the changes trustees implemented to the local procedures from Katy ISD had caused “collateral damage.”

Hubert explained that his vote against reinstating the 19 titles was a show of support to those on the committee. He said he found it difficult to hold them completely accountable for enforcing a policy that the board created.

“I haven’t read the books,” Hubert said. “I wasn’t asked to read the books.”

“With all due respect, I understand you didn’t read them,” Chase fired back at Hubert. “That committee didn’t read them either. But you know who has? The AP English teachers we have in our district that have taught this material year after year.”
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.