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Lake Travis ISD emerges as a battleground for school book bans

Lake Travis ISD elementary school students sit on a gray, textured carpet in the school library while a librarian sits at the front of the room and holds a blue book.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
Student raising hand during a library lesson at the Rough Hollow Elementary School on March 21, 2024. School districts across Texas and U.S. are facing growing efforts to remove books from their libraries. Lake Travis school board has voted to remove three books from libraries this school year.

“The book includes the F-word 97 times," Keely Cano said, referring to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews. "97 gratuitous times."

It does not belong in any school library, the Lake Travis ISD trustee argued during a school board meeting last week.

Cano and fellow board members read the young adult novel to prepare for the meeting on whether to keep two books in the Lake Travis High School library. The other book trustees considered was The Haters, also by Andrews.

Cano was not happy with what she read.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl does not belong in any school library because of the extensive vulgarity and incredibly crude sexual material that is gratuitous and not integral to the story,” she said.

Other members of the school board disagreed with Cano’s assessment, arguing the book has literary value. Among them was Trustee Phillip Davis, who said while the book has some scenes he did not like, overall, it was worth keeping in the high school library.

“We talk about academic value for the book, but there is also a social element of a book that helps a student, or anyone for that matter, establish compassion for the situations that’s happening in the book,” he said. “It helps foster critical thinking.”

Trustees’ debate over the fate of both books came hours after impassioned public testimony. Nineteen people — 10 of whom were students — urged the board to keep both titles on the shelves. Carter, a sophomore at Lake Travis High School, addressed the board and described Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as a wonderful book. He conceded that some parts are not appropriate for, say, a 10-year-old.

“But I’m not 10. I go to a high school, and there is no one at my high school who is 10 years old,” he said. “What we hear in our hallways is considerably worse than anything that this book says.”

In contrast, about seven people called for both books' removal from the high school.

By the time the school board was ready to vote, the once-packed room had largely emptied. Only a handful of people for and against the books’ removal remained. But trustees said they would vote on each book individually to be transparent.

Ultimately, the board voted 4-2 to keep Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, while it voted 4-2 to remove The Haters. The only two trustees to vote to keep both books in the library, Davis and Lauren White, are up for reelection in May.

Why was it up to the school board to vote on which books belong in the school library? It is actually the last step of Lake Travis ISD’s book challenge process that is increasingly being utilized.

How a book challenge works

While challenging a book for the entire student population takes time, if a parent does not want their child to read a certain book, there is an easy solution, according to Amanda Prehn, a Lake Travis ISD curriculum and instruction director.

“I think it helps to clarify that if you are wanting to restrict access to any particular materials for your own child, you’re able to do that immediately,” she said. “There [are] no restrictions or hurdles to jump through, you simply need to talk to your campus librarian.”

Prehn, who has worked in education for about 20 years, said people trying to remove books from school libraries so that no students can access them is a fairly recent phenomenon. She said it wasn’t an issue, in her experience, before 2021.

That follows the national trend, too. According to the American Library Association, book challenges skyrocketed that year. Often, many of the books that face scrutiny feature LGBTQ+ characters or people of color.

The ALA, which “condemns censorship,” also found that in 2021 and 2022, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was one of the most challenged books in the U.S.

A quote printed on a wall above shelves of library books at a Lake Travis ISD elementary school reads: "We are committed to growing compassionate, creative learners who embrace challenges with perseverance and grace in a safe environment."
Patricia Lim
KUT News
School districts across Texas and the U.S. are facing growing efforts to remove books from their libraries. The Lake Travis ISD school board has voted to remove three books from libraries this school year.

The process of challenging a book within Lake Travis ISD begins at the campus level. If a parent or community member wants a book to only be available to older students or removed from a school library entirely, the first step is for them to talk with a campus librarian or principal. Prehn said LTISD is lucky to have a certified librarian at every school.

“They are in charge of the collection evaluation, acquisition, and deselection of library materials. So those professionals ensure that we maintain a diverse collection that takes into account our students’ varied interests, maturity levels, abilities and learning styles,” she said.

Prehn said a librarian and a parent may agree that a book should be removed from the library or only available to older students. But, if the person raising concerns about a book is not happy with the decision, they can submit a formal request for the resource to be reviewed. The school’s principal will then appoint a committee of five to nine people that can include librarians, teachers, parents and district staff. The district then purchases copies of the book for every member of the committee and schedules time outside of the workday to meet.

“I think it is important that if there is a resource that needs to be reconsidered that we spend the time to do that,” Prehn said. “Some resources are easy — they’re picture books — they take us 10 minutes to look at together and some are more robust resources like 500-page novels that are getting challenged at the high school level, for example.”

If the person challenging a book disagrees with the committee’s decision, they can appeal it through a grievance process twice at the district level. If the challenger appeals a third time it heads to the school board for a vote. That is what happened with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Haters.

Parents want more transparency into the book-challenging process

Lake Travis ISD is working on updating its book challenge process — which the board will need to vote on — in part to comply with a law the Texas Legislature passed last year. House Bill 900, also known as the Reader Act, prohibits “sexually explicit” books in school libraries.

While a federal appeals court in January struck down a portion of the law that would have required book vendors to rate the materials they sell to schools, the three-judge panel let another part of the law stand that established new statewide school library standards. Texas officials approved those standards in December 2023.

Students sit on the carpet surrounded by shelves of books in the library as a teacher shows them a book at the front of the group at Rough Hollow Elementary School on March 21.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
The Lake Travis Independent School District is working on updating the district's process for books to be challenged.

One of the proposed changes to the LTISD book challenge process is expanding the committees that reconsider books and making the selection of volunteers random. Prehn said the district also wants to make the process more transparent.

“On the website, we do have the resources challenged, at what level it's located and where it is in the process of being reviewed,” she said.

But Anna Lindsey, a Lake Travis ISD parent, said she wants the district to include more information, especially because removing materials can violate students' First Amendment rights.

“I think there’s a lot that we could do in terms of sharing who is challenging these books,” she said. “I think we should also know why these books are challenged because the rationale matters. It matters why someone is challenging a book.”

Lindsey pointed to the information that neighboring school district, Eanes ISD, shares online about book challenges, including why the book was challenged and an overview of the committee’s decision on whether to keep the book in the library.

She also said a few of the books people have challenged aren’t in Lake Travis ISD libraries. For example, someone raised concerns about Yabo by Bob Wallass and Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, but neither has ever been included in an LTISD library collection, according to the district.

“So, I do have to question the motives behind this because it doesn’t seem like it’s protecting [kids], it seems like it’s part of a larger political agenda,” Lindsey said.

We the People Lake Travis is a local conservative group that has been pushing for the removal of books it deems inappropriate. Jennifer Fleck, who previously ran as a Republican for a seat in the Texas House, helped start the group in February 2021.

“Our purposes are to register voters, engage voters, inform voters and then get them to vote,” she said.

She added the group spends a lot of time on educational issues, so they regularly attend school board meetings and monitor book challenges.

“We are for age-appropriate books and following the new HB 900 law,” she said.

Fleck, who is a former LTISD parent, said there is a lot she likes about the district’s current book challenge process such as the fact that a person can ultimately take a challenge to the elected board. But, she said there are some issues with it, too.

“One is that it takes too long. Book challenges are taking nine to 10 months, so I would like a revision where it’s a shorter time period for…the challenger,” she said.

In the case of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Haters, the formal challenges were filed in May 2023. The board’s vote came more than nine months after that.

Fleck said restricting access to certain books is about protecting students’ innocence and letting "children be children.”

For Lindsey though, the effort to restrict all students' access to books harms students and infringes on other parents' rights.

“I fully support parents being able to have a say in what their kids can and can’t read. What I don’t support is other parents being able to have a say in what my kid can and cannot read,” Lindsey said.

One parent has challenged more than two dozen books

While Lake Travis ISD does not publish the names of people who have challenged books within its school libraries, those individuals can address trustees when their grievance reaches the board. That is what LTISD parent Jodie Dover did last Wednesday. She said her reason for challenging The Haters and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was straightforward.

“To keep it short and simple, they’re sexually explicit, obscene and vulgar,” she told KUT.

Dover, who has two children in elementary school, said she read both books and believes their inclusion in the high school library violated HB 900’s ban on “sexually explicit materials.” She said ensuring all students do not have access to materials she considers inappropriate is important because parents don’t always have a window into what their kids are reading at school.

“A lot of the reading [is] actually done in the library itself where the parent has no idea what the kid is checking out and is unable to intervene and have a valuable conversation,” she said.

Dover said that over the last 14 months, she has challenged about 25 books. Three of Dover’s other book challenges reached the board in November 2023. In response to her challenge, the board voted to remove I Never by Laura Hopper from the high school library. The board also decided to move Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, a National Book Award Finalist for Young People's Literature, from the middle school library to the high school library. Additionally, the board moved the picture book Bodies are Cool, by Tyler Feder, which was previously available at the elementary level, to the teacher and staff collection.

At that November meeting, Dover explained why she was seeking the removal of Bodies are Cool.

“The author specifically states that [she] wrote the book to normalize being fat, queer and trans,” she told trustees. “Additionally, celebrating unhealthy and alternative lifestyles should not be an educational goal for pre-K through second-grade students, let alone introducing sexuality to children this young inside of the school environment. That is left for the home.”

Dover said schools should be safe havens and explicit books should not be on campuses. She also takes issue with the idea that book challenges amount to an effort to ban books.

“This is all about age-appropriate curriculum and instructional resources for our children. It has nothing to do with book burning and book banning — that’s political rhetoric and that’s cultural war language that’s been brought into this community, and it’s really unnecessary,” she said.

The fight over books takes away resources from other issues

As the March 20 meeting drew to a close, Lake Travis ISD School Board Secretary Erin Archer shared concerns about the ongoing fight over school library books. She said fear is driving people on both sides of the issue.

“Fear that we’ve turned into book banners and we’re going to be removing all kinds of stuff from the library without consent and transparency and fear that our dedicated staff are groomers and other things that I’d rather not reiterate because I don’t believe them,” she said.

Archer said the issue has taken on disproportionate importance and is distracting from more important issues like student outcomes.

“That hurts my heart because I know there are a lot of people losing sleep over this and we can’t win in this situation,” she said.

The fight over which books belong in school libraries is likely far from over. According to LTISD, the latest books facing formal challenges are Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yaros and Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Both are New York Times bestsellers.

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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