School & District Management

ACLU Texas Files OCR Complaint Over a District’s Anti-Trans Book Ban

By Eesha Pendharkar — November 30, 2022 4 min read
Banned books are visible at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City on Thursday, July 7, 2022. The books are banned in several public schools and libraries in the U.S., but young people can read digital versions from anywhere through the library. The Brooklyn Public Library offers free membership to anyone in the U.S. aged 13 to 21 who wants to check out and read books digitally in response to the nationwide wave of book censorship and restrictions.
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The Keller Independent School District in North Texas last month passed a policy removing books about gender fluidity from library shelves.

On November 21, days later, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and several LGBTQ advocacy organizations filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s office of civil rights to contest the policy. The complaint alleges that the district is violating Title IX by discriminating on the basis of sex, specifically against transgender and nonbinary students.

According to an executive order issued by President Joe Biden in March, all students must be assured an educational environment devoid of “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Advocates say the OCR complaint might be faster than a lawsuit for seeking relief for students. The Department of Education investigates complaints filed through the OCR, and has the ability to withdraw federal funding if it finds a violation has not been addressed.

This is the second federal complaint the civil rights organization has filed against a Texas district recently, but the first to contest a library book policy. It points to a conservative shift since fall of 2022 in North Texas, as evidenced by Keller, the Grapevine-Colleyville district, the Frisco Independent School District, and others in the Dallas area passing anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ policies, according to Kate Huddleston, an attorney from ACLU Texas.

The Grapevine-Colleyville district passed a sweeping policy in August restricting the rights of trans, gender-nonconforming, and non-binary students to use bathrooms aligned with their gender identity, or for any student to learn about gender fluidity. According to the policy, teachers also don’t have to comply with students’ requests for preferred pronouns.

On the same day that the Keller board of trustees decided to remove books about gender fluidity from school libraries, the Frisco school system passed a policy mandating that students have to use bathrooms that align with their sex assigned at birth. The ACLU also filed a challenge against that policy with the office of civil rights for a Title IX violation. The complaint alleges that the policy will “harm transgender, non-binary, gender diverse, and intersex students, and substantially invade their privacy.”

“This is a group of young people that is particularly vulnerable to adverse mental health outcomes,” Huddleston said. “And it’s particularly important that schools throughout Texas show transgender and non-binary students that their identities are affirmed and that they are supported.”

Keller board members made anti-LGBTQ statements

Keller ISD has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

The district’s policy, which four of the seven board Keller ISD board members voted for, bans any library book that includes or mentions a transgender or non-binary person, including fictional characters or historical figures. It also bans books that merely mention that transgender and non-binary orientations exist, according to the OCR complaint.

“I trust our teachers and I wanted to know that I don’t have to look at this list, but here I am finding multiple books that unfortunately are part of the LGBTQ community,” said member Joni Shaw Smith at the Nov. 14 board meeting.

Board Vice President Sandi Walker also said at the meeting that “gender fluidity and other ideologies do not belong in the schools but in the homes,” and trustee Micah Young added that the district needs to stop “trying to get kids to change from one gender to the next.”

In a post on Facebook, Charles Randklev, the president of the board of trustees, said that the policy was designed to protect kids from age-inappropriate and sexually explicit materials, a commonly used argument in defense of book bans.

But the OCR complaint takes issue with that stance. “To assert that the mere presence of a transgender or non-binary character would render a book sexually explicit or age-inappropriate is inflammatory, inaccurate, and discriminatory,” it says.

I think that it really comes from a misunderstanding of what it means to be trans or non-binary,” said Huddleston, “and I think that by pulling books from the shelves, it is perpetuating the cycle and leading to further isolation for trans and non-binary people.”

The district’s track record onshift toward book censorship

It’s unclear so far how many books are impacted by the policy banning any mention of gender fluidity, according to Huddleston.

In August, the district temporarily banned at least 41 books, including commonly challenged books such as The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, as well as some less controversial books including an adaptation of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and the Bible. The ban occurred after three conservative board members were elected to the board.

The district has since returned Anne Frank’s book and the Bible to libraries, but removed The Bluest Eye, Gender Queer, and other critically acclaimed books such as Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Eighteen of those 41 books—or 44 percent—removed for review in August, were about LGBTQ people and characters, including titles such as Last Night at the Telegraph Club, winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and titles about trans identity and inclusion, such as I Am Jazz and The Breakaways, according to the OCR complaint.

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