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Special Report: Obscene books in SBISD

This update is the first of a multi-part series focusing on the controversies surrounding instructional materials used in SBISD.


In the Fall of 2021, the first of what would become many obscene books was found in SBISD school libraries. The discovery of this book set off a series of events at the elected, administrative, and parental levels that attempted to protect SBISD students from inappropriate materials in their schools.


Some of the actions taken since 2021 have been effective, others have not. Now two years later, the district is still fighting to clean up inappropriate instructional materials our students see in schools throughout the district.


Fighting whom, you say? That depends on the day.


Before we can get to the struggles the district, its administrators, and its parents are facing today, we must first provide you with background so you can see how the district got here. This update covers the 2021 - 2022 Academic year, when the fight against inappropriate educational materials began in earnest.


For more updates from Save SBISD, please subscribe here.


Part One:

Fall 2021 - Spring 2022


October 2021: Gender Queer discovered in SBISD libraries; swift action taken by Superintendent.


In late October of 2021, a short five months after the seminal election of Chris Earnest to the SBISD Board of Trustees, the book Gender Queer: A Memoir was discovered in SBISD libraries.


Gender Queer: A Memoir contains pornographic images and profane descriptions of sex acts. This book was located on multiple SBISD campuses and was available to children as young as eleven years old.


It remains unclear how the copies of Gender Queer: A Memoir got onto SBISD bookshelves in the first place, but it appears the title was included as a "free of charge" promotion by the districts book supplier.

 

As many of our readers are first learning about this controversy now, please permit us a little background.


Gender Queer: A Memoir is what is known in the book industry as a "graphic novel".

In this industry definition, 'graphic' does not mean 'explicit', it means illustrated. A graphic novel is basically a long form comic book. An example of another graphic novel is shown to the right.


Graphic novels are relatively commonplace in school libraries, as they purportedly engage young readers with their illustrations. We ask our readers to please set aside any opinion they may have on whether these tools are appropriate for teaching kids to read, as graphic novels themselves are not at issue here; we just want our readers to understand what they are.


 

Gender Queer: A Memoir is a 240 page graphic novel that its publisher Simon & Schuster describes as "[The Authors] intensely cathartic autobiography [that] charts [her] journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, [and] bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction". It was was first published in 2019.


This is the book's cover:



Gender Queer: A Memior starts out innocently enough, with the author headed off to college on page 4, 5 & 6:

Excerpts from Gender Queer: A Memoir. Source: Simon & Schuster


As the story progresses, though, the written and illustrated content becomes pornographic. Specifically, there are written and illustrated depictions of oral sex.


The depictions are not subtle, indirect, or rhetorical. The author makes no attempt at allusion like a more capable author might when touching on such an intimate subject.


Oh no, the Author just gets right to it. On page 166, one character in the book says to another, "I can't wait to have your cock in my mouth - I'm going to give you the blow job of your life."


Graphic novels being what they are, that prose is further clarified with a close-up image of a penis inside a persons mouth, twice, on page 167:


An uncensored link to these excerpts is available at the bottom of this update.


When Gender Queer: A Memoir and these images were brought to the attention of the SBISD Superintendent, her actions were immediate and decisive. The Superintendent described the book as "vulgar" and Gender Queer: A Memoir was removed from SBISD schools the next day.


This was an open-and-shut case. The content spoke for itself, and was unquestionably unsuitable and inappropriate for children. This one issue with this singular title was settled.


But with parents now aware of the type of objectionable content that had slipped onto SBISD bookshelves, they immediately began scouring online card-catalogs for other inappropriate titles. After all, if middle-schoolers had access to illustrated depictions of felatio, what else were they being exposed to?


It turns out, an awful lot. Many more objectionable titles were found on SBISD bookshelves.


November 2021: Parents request action from the Board of Trustees


On November 15, 2021, the SBISD Board of Trustees, then under President Chris Gonzalez, held its first regular meeting since Gender Queer: A Memoir was discovered and removed from SBISD schools.


Thirty-one people spoke at the public comment portion of the meeting, including people who supported removal of inappropriate books, and people who urged caution when removing books.


Notably, NONE of these thirty-one speakers supported Gender Queer: A Memoir remaining in SBISD libraries. In fact, one speaker, who was generally opposed to book removal, expressly stated, "I am NOT here to support Gender Queer".


Many speakers called for changes to SBISD book policy during public comment. The public wanted transparency, accountability, and action by the Board of Trustees to prevent books like Gender Queer: A Memoir from entering SBISD schools, and they wanted other objectionable titles removed with all due haste.


Here are some representative comments from this November 2021 call to action:

Although this may seem like something you would see happening on the national news in some far away place in a community that isn't ours, make no mistake--these public comments were made at SBISD headquarters, 955 Campbell Road in Houston, Texas.


This was happening right here in the Spring Branch Independent School District.


This meeting took place just prior to Thanksgiving 2021. As concerned parents spent their holidays reviewing instructional materials looking for more threats to their children, the then Board of Trustees did nothing to reassure the public.


Winter 2021 - 2022: Self-serving Board ignores community request for book policy changes.


The Board of Trustees was focused on other items over the winter. Specifically, as Save SBISD was the first to report, you may recall they were spending time:

  • Negotiating with Barry Abrams on a settlement for Elizondo vs. SBISD (November)

  • Firing their defense counsel after months of resisting public outcry to do so (December)

  • Making themselves lame ducks by not seeking re-election ...

  • ...while at the same time, attempting to remain in power past the expiry of their terms!

  • Calling press conferences to double down on the reasons why they should stay in office without an election (all in February)

  • Nonetheless failing spectacularly to secure unelected power (March)

This level of political effort without progress must have been disheartening for the then Board of Trustees. It was truly Washington DC level absurdity.


When the Trustees finally got back to focusing on the business of SBISD policy in early 2022, what did they choose to do?


Before taking up the matter of revising the book policy, the self-serving supermajority of the then Board of Trustees amended their rules (which had been in place for over a decade) to prevent newly elected members like Chris Earnest from attaining powerful Officer positions.


This is a policy markup from their March 7, 2022 Workshop (policy additions in RED):

Second reading of SBISD Policy BDAA (LOCAL); Source: SBISD Archives


In addition, the then Board of Trustees stripped any individual Trustee of their power to place an item on the agenda for discussion. Now, it would take two trustees to bring a topic up for discussion.


This change gagged Chris Earnest from bringing new items before the Board:


Second reading of SBISD Policy BE (LOCAL); Source: SBISD Archives


These edits were clearly aimed at neutering Chris Earnest's power as the then sole voice for change on the Board of Trustees. The vote speaks for itself; each policy change passed 6-1, with Chris Earnest as the lone vote against.

On the day this vote was taken, 152 days had passed since graphic, illustrated depictions of felatio had been found in SBISD middle schools. The board had yet to take any action on that obviously much more important matter.


Shameful.


March 2022: Karen Peck proposes meager book policy changes


Having spent the prior five months employing enough political double-standards to make Mitch McConnell blush, the Board finally turned its attention to the SBISD book policy.


Karen Peck, a mask-wearing, Yale-trained lawyer and the SBISD Boardmember tasked with drafting policy changes at the time, unceremoniously introduced proposed changes to the book policy on March 28, 2022. These proposed policy changes would eventually be adopted in substantially the same form a month later.


(A full copy of the adopted changes from the SBISD archives is included at the bottom of this update. The relevant sections are included in the paragraphs below.)


Karen Peck's edits to the book policy contained three substantive changes.


The first change is to the portion of the policy that describes what types of books the district may select as instructional resources. Karen Peck's gutsy change to this section is shown below in BLUE:


While we at Save SBISD take no issue with this addition per se, we do question the logic in reiterating State of Texas Criminal Statute in SBISD policy, and wonder what exactly this change actually accomplishes.


Providing (as legally-defined) Obscene Materials to a minor has been a crime in the State of Texas for 50 years. Surely the District and its Trustees know that. But hey, if a Yalie says we should codify it in SBISD policy, who are we to question that.


We give this policy change a grade of C-Average, as this change has no real positive or any real negative impact on the SBISD policy.

 

Karen Peck's second change to the book policy was not so easy to grade. It was an addition to the portion of the policy that lays out the process for a community member to challenge a book and seek its removal as an instructional resource, and the criteria that challenge must meet.


The process for a community member to remove an instructional resource that is already in place in SBISD is arduous, as it probably should be. This is different than SBISD administration removing a resource, which it can generally do at its own discretion.


Regardless of what one thinks about the process, the criteria should be easier to understand.


This is why Karen Peck's second change to the policy is confounding. In the section that defines the process for the committee that reviews a challenged book, Ms. Peck adds, in BLUE, a criteria that the committee must consider the work as a whole:



It is unclear to us why Karen Peck would insert this new criteria in the process section of the policy, as opposed to simply adding it as an eighth requirement in the criteria section we showed you earlier. We could speculate why a graduate of The Yale Law School would be so sloppily inconsistent in her legal drafting, but it would amount to no more than that, so we choose to not digress.


What we can say for certain, as can any lay reader, is that Ms. Peck's added "as a whole" criteria is a linguistic crease gaping enough to give a simple-minded review committee enough room to retain just about any instructional resource they wanted, no matter how objectionable a portion of it may be.


As such, because of the placement and ambiguity of this change in criteria, it received a grade of D -- Below Average because it seems likely to cause more harm than good to the policy.

 

The last change to the policy is graded A - Excellent. These new sections add transparency to curriculum and compel timely training of staff:

 

The overall grade for the changes proposed by Karen Peck is frankly rather poor. Considering the Board had six months since the discovery of Gender Queer: A Memoir in middle schools, this was the best they could come up with?


Ms. Peck basically proposed giving parents some disclosure on required reading in grades 6-12 in exchange for an enormous bureaucratic loophole that could keep inappropriate books in schools.


The board would get its first chance to discuss these proposed changes at it's next two meetings in April. At least one Trustee would ask the Board for more.


April 8, 2022: Board discusses book policy changes


The Board had its first discussion of the proposed changes to the book policy April 8, 2022 at their semi-annual retreat, a day long working session on SBISD matters.


The board spent approximately 80 minutes discussing the proposed changes, with Karen Peck, Chris Earnest, and SBISD staff going back and forth.


Mr. Earnest pushed for more in transparency into the books classroom libraries contained, but was met with resistance from Ms. Peck, who suggested Mr. Earnest didn't want kids reading at all.


You can watch as Mr. Earnest alerts the Board that there are issues of inappropriate books still remaining in classrooms throughout the district. They appear to be caucht completely unaware:


Mr. Earnest also asked for clarity on the Obscenity Statute but was unable to find support from his fellow Boardmembers.


After all their discussion, the Board made five small grammatical changes to the draft policy, none of them substantive.


The Board would have one more discussion on the matter at their next meeting.


April 25, 2022: Board adopts watered-down policy


Two weeks later, the Board had its third and final reading of the changes to the book policy and considered its adoption. This was the last meeting this Board of Trustees would have before the 2022 election, where Karen Peck and two other boardmembers would be replaced.


At this reading, Chris Earnest proposed adding language that the Board itself take responsibility for the contents of school libraries directly, as opposed to putting all the responsibility on the administration. The Board rejected his proposal to add this layer of accountability to themselves.


Mr. Earnest again asked to add language that increased transparency for parents on classroom libraries. None was added.


Mr. Earnest insisted that the policy go further than it did to define harmful materials being placed into the hands of children. No change was made.


Mr. Earnest also wanted to extend the length of time that inappropriate books were removed from schools from two years to ten years, to conform it to the recommendation of the Texas Education Agency.


Karen Peck pushed back aggressively on this ten-year timeframe, oddly commenting "We're going to have to wait 10 years to get a [banned] book back [in]?"

After an hour of Chris Earnest trying to improve the policy as written, and a bunch of discussion that went nowhere, the question was called.


No consideration was given to Chris Earnest's suggestions to strengthen the policy, and the original, minimal changes to SBISD policy were adopted by a 5-2 vote, with Mr. Earnest and Mr. Breed voting no.

 

In the final analysis, the 2021-2022 Board of Trustees was simply not as focused on instructional materials as their duties required them to be. Instead, they spent a year unenthusiastically addressing Elizondo vs. SBISD and engaging in self-serving power grabs because they knew their time in office was ending.


Most would excuse their tepid changes to the book policy as all they could muster given their limited remaining political energy, and that may very well have been the case.


Cynics will say that certain members of the Board exploited their colleagues' fatigue and inserted the "as a whole" language while resisting Mr. Earnest's attempt at real reforms in order to live to fight for their ideology on another day.


Whichever the case, Part Two of this series will give you the next year's worth of information so you can begin to reach a conclusion whether it was exhaustion or incipience that led the Board to adopt these milquetoast changes.


If you already knew most of this, we apologize for the length and historical nature of this update. This topic is new to many of our readers and this history is important to get them up to speed. We promise a thorough discussion of current events in our next update, and a call to action.


Part Two will discuss:

  • The strenuous resistance the newly-elected board received from certain members of the community when it pushed to rid our schools of these types of materials (which remain on shelves today),

  • The additional guardrails the current board has erected

  • The attempts by their antagonists to forestall the removal of inappropriate materials from our schools

  • Details on the inappropriate materials that remain in SBISD, and what you can do to help.

If you would like to receive future updates from Save SBISD, please subscribe here.


If you would like to follow us on Twitter, we are @SaveSBISD

 

April 2022 Revisions by the SBISD Board of Trustees to the book policy:

EF_LOCAL
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Download PDF • 143KB

Uncensored images from Gender Queer: A Memoir, pages 166 & 167:

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