School just started but the debate surrounding gender and race in classrooms is already at a fever pitch

Numerous schools across the nation have discussed whether books like "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe and "All Boys Aren't Blue" by George M. Johnson are appropriate for students.

By Nicole Chavez, CNN

(CNN) -- It's been only a few weeks since millions of children returned to America's schools -- but the debate surrounding the teaching of gender identity and race is already at a fever pitch.

Dozens of books have been pulled from shelves in Texas, new policies expanding oversight of books are being drafted or already passed in multiple states, a Florida school district halted library purchases and a teacher resigned in Oklahoma over the censorship of books in classroom libraries.

With new laws that restrict teaching about race, history and gender identity in effect in more than a dozen states, students are starting to see changes in the classroom and more might be coming in the next months.

In a recent analysis, the literary and free expression advocacy organization PEN America found that 19 states have laws targeting discussions of race, gender, and United States history; and 36 other states introduced 137 similar bills in 2022, marking a significant increase compared to the 54 bills proposed last year.

"For teachers and for students, what this amounts to is an escalating campaign of censorship. A dramatically increased chilling effect that is leading to all kinds of negative outcomes within the classroom," said Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America who has been tracking censorship in US classrooms.

Young said those laws have so far impacted classrooms in multiple ways. They have led to teachers not bringing up topics that could be considered controversial to avoid trouble, curriculum and school policy changes, and books being banned from schools.

In Missouri, school librarians have been reviewing books available on campus for potential removal to comply with a new law that makes it a crime to give students books that contain sexually explicit material. If school employees violate the state law, they could be charged with a class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a fine of $2,000.

Meanwhile in Texas, the recent book removals have been linked more broadly to the ongoing efforts by community members rather than a direct response to legislative changes.

Kate Huddleston, an attorney with the ACLU of Texas, said there has been an alarming trend of school districts pulling books off shelves in recent months.

Backed by conservative lawmakers, the state's "critical race theory" law took effect in December and prohibits teachers from discussing "a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs." There have not been many policies put in place implementing the state law, Huddleston said, but some schools are taking action to decide what books and reading materials students should have access to.

Many of those actions are book bans and generally target the history of racism, racial inclusion, gender identity and LGBTQ+ inclusion, she added.

"Districts are targeting books based on the ideas that they contain, and keeping those books off the shelves violates the First Amendment and violates student's rights to access a range of ideas," said Huddleston who added that the ACLU of Texas has been sending letters to school officials that include an analysis of how they are not complying with federal law.

One of those school districts was the Keller Independent School District in North Texas where a day before students returned to school last month, an administrator asked principals and librarians to temporarily remove more than 40 books from shelves on campus, Bryce Nieman, director of communications and legislative affairs at Keller ISD told CNN.

The books, including all versions of the Bible and a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank's diary, were challenged by parents and community members in the past year but had to be reviewed once again under a new set of standards recently approved by the district's board of trustees, school officials said.

"If the books pass the new standards, as determined by reviews conducted in coordination with campus administration and librarians, the books will be promptly returned to shelves," Keller ISD Superintendent Rick Westfall said in a message to district families and employees.

A list of books posted on the district's website indicates the Anne Frank's diary adaption and all versions of The Bible have already been returned to circulation. The review of the rest of the books is ongoing, district officials said.

Keller ISD is also an example of how heated disputes at school board meetings are evolving in some places.

For more than a year, the meetings have been home to protests and long hours of public comments on diversity and equity plans, critical race theory and students' access to "inappropriate content." Complaints about certain books, including "All Boys Aren't Blue" by George M. Johnson often led to school officials ordering their removal. In many cases doing so meant not following existing policies or a formal process, according to an analysis of school book bans released by PEN America earlier this year.

Keller ISD and some other districts recently drafted and passed policies that give parents and trustees more oversight of what students read, and set in place strict review processes for the selection of library books. Young, the senior manager at PEN America, said nearly a dozen school districts in the past few weeks have changed their policies to make it easier to ban books based on their content.

In other school districts, the push to remove books including those exploring LGBTQ themes about sexuality and gender identity by community members with conservative views has not stopped -- even in places where school officials have reviewed and made decisions on challenged books.

At a board meeting of the Granbury Independent School District last month, several people spoke during the public comment section asking for more books to be permanently removed from shelves and describing them as "inappropriate" or with the ability to damage students' brains. Earlier this year, a district committee reviewed books challenged and voted to remove only a handful of titles.

Teachers, parents and school librarians are pushing back

Frustration over the new restricting laws, continued complains by conservative residents and even alleged harassment have pushed teachers, parents and school librarians to take action.

In Oklahoma, an English teacher said she resigned from her job following controversy over the display of, and student access to, more than 500 books in her classroom library.

When teachers in the Norman Public Schools were asked to review books to see which might "elicit challenges" related to the new state law, teacher Summer Boismier says she decided to cover the books, labeled them with "Books the State Doesn't Want You to Read," and put up the QR code.

She was placed on administrative leave, Boismier says, but the district has denied it.

"It's my desire and the top objective that I have as an educator, to make my classroom as inclusive as possible," she told CNN last month.

The Louisiana Association of School Librarians has been urging members to stand up against censorship if they feel comfortable doing so. Amanda Jones, president of the organization and a middle school librarian in Livingston Parish, said members want to inform community members about public policies on school libraries and educate them on the job they do because there is confusion.

"These fringe groups capitalize on that lack of knowledge from everyday citizens, and they use rhetoric, like pornography and erotica to describe books, especially books around LGBTQ+ themes and sexual health books that written by experts like the American Psychological Association," Jones told CNN. "They are not interested in the truth."

Jones said school librarians can speak out at school board meetings and write letters to city and state lawmakers, but they do have to "weigh personal safety" because "you can be attacked and have completely fabricated stories told about you."

"We don't want to use the same hateful rhetoric that these people use against us," Jones said. "We want to make sure we're positive and we're promoting the library in a positive light."

She recently filed a lawsuit asking authorities to issue a temporary restraining order against a group she says has been harassing her since she made a "blanket" speech about censorship at the Livingston Parish Public Library Board of Control in July. The case is ongoing.

Meanwhile in Texas, Adrienne Martin, a Granbury parent and chair of the Hood County Democratic Party, told CNN she recently started speaking at the board meetings after seeing the same group of individuals who are not parents of children attending the district's schools complaining at the meetings.

"So, being a taxpayer does not grant special privileges over students, staff, and parents. I do not want random people with no education background or experience determining what books my child can read, what curriculum they learn, and what clubs they can join," Martin said during the last board meeting.

"Just because you can get up at every meeting and rant and rave does not give you authority over my child's education," she added.

In response to book banning and censorship, a number of groups have launched online tools and initiatives to support students, including the American Library Association. Last week, the ACLU of Texas launched a resources hub to help students, educators, and advocates learn how to protect their rights.

"It's really critical in this time that not just the ACLU, but people throughout the nation stand up for the rights of all students to learn and have access to a wide range of ideas, particularly those related to historically oppressed communities," said Huddleston.

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