Of Parents and School Boards

Season 7, Episode 3

Over the past few years, school board races have become more heated and more political — and books have become the center of that political storm. We look at what happened in Keller, Texas when an ultra-conservative group took over the school board.

Our call to action for this episode:
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Check out our book list created for this episode.

Episode Transcript

[Promo for Cuationary Tales]

Aren Lau My name is Aren Lau. And I'm 18 years old.

Adwoa Adusei Aren lives in Brooklyn. They’re part of BPL’s Books Unbanned community, but they grew up in rural Georgia.

Aren Lau I won't say the town name, but it was south of Atlanta. I'll tell you that. I think I counted one time in my yearbook and I was one of ten Asian people across all grades, and I only knew like two of them. You know, things just got harder as I got older and, you know, realized I'm kind of queer.

Adwoa Adusei Like many kids, Aren found refuge in books.

Aren Lau There's like fantasy books there that kind of served as, like, my first exposure to queer people in general. I mean, there was nothing explicit in them. It was just like, gay people were there, which was like, good. Because I was like, oh, I didn't know that was an option. Two summers ago, when I was like maybe 16, I read this book, it was about like this family of Latinx, like, witches or something. And they lived in New York, I can't remember what borough.

Virginia Marshall The book was called Wayward Witch by Zoraida Córdova.

Aren Lau There was a character in it, they were a non-binary character with like powers and stuff. And having the non-binary character be there and be like a relevant character ... the story not even really being hyper-focused on their gender. It was just like really awesome for me to see myself in a fantasy, you know, exciting story like that. Because often it’s like, oh, I can put myself in this non-binary character’s shoes, but terrible things are happening because of the queerness.

Adwoa Adusei Aren moved to Brooklyn when they were 14, and soon they were interning at BPL. They were in Brooklyn when they started to see books that they loved disappear from school libraries and classrooms across the country.

Aren Lau And a lot of these books had to do with subject matter that related to me, like queer people, like POC stories. Those two together, which—uh, me—that was just kind of like what struck me really quickly. 

Virginia Marshall According to the American Library Association, 60 percent of all book bans and challenges across the country in 2022 happened in schools. And when a book gets pulled from a school library shelf … sometimes, that’s it. Young people can’t get those stories anywhere else. 

Aren Lau There were no sidewalks in my town. Because, when you're in a rural-suburban area like that, it's just like, you can't go anywhere unless you have a car. So I never went to the public library as a kid. I would only have the school library. And that was where I got all my books, including like many libraries in my teachers' rooms, and I would steal books from them. I'm sorry about that. So I still have books with, like, "Miss Alexander" written on them. [Laughs]

Virginia Marshall There are teens like Aren all around the country. They write to us and share similar stories when they sign up for a Books Unbanned library card. So we can see patterns. Across the country, students are seeing books disappear from their classrooms and school libraries. We want to talk about why and how that’s happening. And to tell that story, we have to talk about school boards.

Adwoa Adusei Over the past few years, we’ve seen school board races become more heated and more political. We’ve seen books become the center of that political storm.

Virginia Marshall And we should be clear here. As a public library, we have a particular stance: we believe in the free and open access to books and information, no matter if we agree with the ideas in those books or not. Unfortunately, that stance has become a political one.

Adwoa Adusei So in this episode, we’re going back to Texas, jumping from Katy to Keller, to tell the story of one school board, and what happened to the books, the students, and the parents when politics came directly into play. I’m Adwoa Adusei.

Virginia Marshall And I’m Virginia Marshall. You’re listening to Borrowed and Banned: a podcast series about America’s ideological war with its bookshelves.

[Theme music out]

[Promotion for Voyage Into Genre}

Laney Hawes There was a man named Matt Krause. I don't know, I'm sure some of your listeners may have heard of him.

Virginia Marshall This is Laney Hawes, from Keller, Texas in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Laney Hawes There was a law that passed in the state legislature about books not being allowed in schools that made children feel uncomfortable for their race, or ... I don't even remember all the details.

Virginia Marshall Basically, in 2021, Texas passed a law that prohibited schools from including in libraries or classrooms anything that might make students feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”

Adwoa Adusei If this sounds like the law that was passed in Oklahoma – HB 1775 – that we discussed in the first episode of this series … that’s because the laws are very similar. Laws like these are now in place in a dozen states, with more bills pending. In October of 2021, Republican State Representative Matt Krause took Texas’s new law to the next level.

Laney Hawes He released a list of, I think, 800-plus titles and recommended to Texas parents to look in to see if our schools had any of these books.

Adwoa Adusei That list Laney is talking about included titles about the Black Lives Matter movement, books about sexual health and consent, gender identity, and LGBTQ+ stories and history.

Laney Hawes And it wasn't long. I mean, we're talking days, maybe weeks, before we had members of our community who were taking this list as well as other lists that were being published online, and scouring our catalogs for them and then going into libraries and checking them out. And of course, they were looking for the most outrageous titles. And the first book that ultimately started out all of this was the book Gender Queer.

Virginia Marshall Gender Queer is a memoir by Maia Kobabe about gender identity and sexuality, told in graphic novel format. It was the most frequently banned and challenged book in America for 2021 and 2022, according to the American Library Association.

Laney Hawes Of course, they opened it up to the pages that they thought were the most shocking, took pictures and then just blasted them all over social media and said that they were trying to give our children pornography and how disgusting it was. And so, when I first saw the images, I was like, Oh, yeah, that is a lot. You know, why is that in schools?

Virginia Marshall This mattered to Laney because she has four kids in Keller Independent School District. One in elementary, one in middle, one in intermediate, and one in high school. She cares about what her kids are learning. So, she decided to read Gender Queer for herself and come to her own conclusion.

Laney Hawes And my husband and I were like, would we? Would we tell our kids they couldn't read it? Even in high school? You know, because it's about—there's some scenes, I think, about oral sex and things like that. And as we discussed it, we realized ... if I have a 16-year-old who wants to read a book that has that in it, and that's what they want, then I'm going to respect that.


Laney Hawes Books are a really safe place, right? And I'd rather my child read Gender Queer than go to the Internet and Google "trans sexual experiences," right? Like, I don't need my kids Googling anything about sexual experiences.

Virginia Marshall Laney knew where she stood on Gender Queer. So, she decided to attend the next school board meeting.

Laney Hawes I had been to the previous few school board meetings, which were generally all very boring, as you would expect. But that first school board meeting after that book broke in the news was like nothing I have ever seen before. Giant posters about blowjobs and, you know, giant wagons full of what they called pornography. Lots of yelling.

Parent Protect our children or get out of the way!

Laney Hawes There was a lot of calling people to repentance, lots of reading from the Bible. We had pastors coming, we had them praying. And it ultimately started to spiral out of control.

Newscaster ... created a firestorm that came to a head here tonight. 

Parent And, please stop the sexual grooming of our children by these types of books and illustrations.

Laney Hawes And within a few months there were officially—at least what we have records of—41 books challenged.

Adwoa Adusei If you look at the 41 challenged titles, many of them also appear on Matt Krause’s list. Books like Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez, Flamer by Mike Curato, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews and more.

Virginia Marshall For a district that isn’t used to handling book challenges – and for any school district, for that matter – re-evaluating so many books is a lot of work. So, the district decided to set up committees to review the books, with seven to ten community members assigned to each committee.

Laney Hawes So they said, if you'd like to serve on any of these challenge committees, sign up. So a lot of us in the community signed up. Everyone was given a copy of the book a week or two before. They were asked to read it from cover to cover, and then we would come and discuss the book. So one of the books that I got was The Diary of Anne Frank, the graphic novel adaptation. Got it. Read it. Couldn't believe it was challenged. Showed up to the Book Challenge Committee. Immediately, we all were like, what's going on here? Why was this book challenged?

Virginia Marshall Everyone at the review meeting was confused. But, they did what they’d been asked to do. They talked about the book.

Laney Hawes We had a really beautiful discussion. And we unanimously voted to put this library book back on shelves at every level except for elementary schools, because it really—you know, it's not an elementary school-type book. And we were really excited. We walked away really thrilled.

Virginia Marshall Of the committees that met to review the titles, all of them voted to return the books to school shelves in some capacity, though some were restricted to high school only. As for Gender Queer, that book didn’t get a committee at all. It was just pulled from library shelves.

Adwoa Adusei And the fight wasn’t over. In the Spring, three of the seven positions on the school board were up for re-election.


Laney Hawes We all of a sudden just saw so much money, so many fliers just pour into our school district. Unbeknownst to us at that point, we had PACs and hundreds of thousands of dollars and political organizations and political parties behind the scenes coming into our community and handpicking candidates that would ban books and that would fight for their agenda. The biggest one was Patriot Mobile.

Virginia Marshall Patriot Mobile is a SuperPAC created by a conservative Christian wireless provider whose stated aim is to defend their “God-given Constitutional rights and freedoms while glorifying God.” They backed three of the candidates in Keller.

Laney Hawes Half a million dollars in North Texas. And I want to remind everyone that normally school board races are like a $5,000 race. We're talking small town, nonpartisan. You know, we get together for ice cream and decide who, you know, people are going to vote for. But you bring in half a million dollars and all of us parents couldn't compete. And the number one issue during the school board race was sexually explicit material and pornography in our schools. And they won.


Adwoa Adusei The first thing the new school board did—even before schools came back into session for the 2022 school year—was reverse all the decisions that the review committees had made, and pull all remaining titles from the list of 41 books from library shelves. Again. And the changes didn’t stop there. The board passed a new policy which states that any book that is challenged has to go through an evaluation, rating the book for any instances of violence, kissing, bullying, and “sexually explicit conduct.”

Virginia Marshall Right, and that goes against the legal definition of obscenity, which we talked about last episode. You know, that a book has to be taken as a whole and considered for its social, cultural, and artistic value in addition to instances of challenging topics like sex or violence. And in Keller ISD, when a book doesn’t meet this check list—it gets banned.

Laney Hawes And then, those books are pulled. They are officially banned from appearing on Keller ISD shelves for at least ten years.

Adwoa Adusei That’s a whole generation of public school students who will never have access to dozens of books on the list. As Aren Lau pointed out earlier, many kids and teens in rural or suburban areas can’t get books anywhere else.

Laney Hawes For example, one book that we just lost here in Keller ISD is called Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. And I went and got it and read it. And it's a really touching book. And it’s not allowed to even be reconsidered for ten years. And it's not pornographic. It's not. There’s a scene where she almost has sex with her boyfriend and decides not to because she doesn't want to. And then he respects that. And I just thought, oh my gosh, this is a book I want my children to read. I want my children to see what consent looks like. I want my children to know that if you don't want to have sex, you don’t have to. No one wants pornography in our children's libraries, but it's being painted as though there's one group who wants to give kids porn and another group who doesn't. But that's simply not true.

Adwoa Adusei Laney said she’s been called everything from a "groomer" to a “library porn apologist.” From members of her own community. Fellow parents. And she’s not alone. Across the country, books are dividing school districts. Parents have turned on each other, and their fight has made its way to the school board.

[Shouting at a school board meeting]

Virginia Marshall We’ve been reading stories of this unrest and division in communities. So, in order to get a sense of the bigger picture, we called Nicole Carr, a reporter in Atlanta who was reading those same news stories about clashes at school board meetings. To her, it was starting to sound like an echo chamber.

Nicole Carr It was curious to me that we were hearing the same language at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 across the country, as if I could predict the next line of it.

Virginia Marshall Nicole is a reporter at ProPublica. And, she’s a parent of kids in public schools. She said that when she was reading those news stories, hearing parents shout about the same things again and again: Critical Race Theory, child pornography, and obscene materials in schools, she realized several things.

Nicole Carr One, I didn't get the memo to come to the school board and say these things. Two, I hadn't seen these things in my own children's material that they were bringing home. We're very involved parents. And three, I wasn't seeing anyone who looked like me, either.

Virginia Marshall Most of the attendees at these school board meetings who were drawing attention to things like CRT and gender ideology were white, and Nicole is Black.

Adwoa Adusei So, Nicole dug deeper. She looked into one particularly heated school board meeting in Cherokee County, Georgia in May 2021, not far from where she lives. At the meeting, mostly white parents accused a recently-hired administrator for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Cherokee public schools of indoctrinating their kids with CRT and gender ideology. And it turned out ... the parents who were bringing these accusations had been trained.

Nicole Carr It was like a secret meeting in a clubhouse on a golf course where they were taught definitions of CRT, how they were going after legislation, how to target this woman. It was eye-opening.

Adwoa Adusei ProPublica obtained recordings of the golf club meeting, during which attendees were given talking points and tool kits by conservative groups like the Atlanta-based “Truth in Education” and “Protect Student Health Georgia.”

Virginia Marshall A lot of the talking points focused on Critical Race Theory. But we should talk about what that really means. CRT is the idea that racial bias is embedded in American laws in a way that harms people of color. This theory is rarely, if ever, taught in K-12 schools – it's usually reserved for graduate school or law school.

Adwoa Adusei But the idea that their kids were being indoctrinated with CRT ... took hold. At the Cherokee County school board meeting following the training at the golf club, parents hurled accusations at the recently-hired DEI administrator, Cecelia Lewis, who is Black. She hadn’t even started her job yet.

[Sound from school board meeting]

Adwoa Adusei This is sound from the school board meeting in Cherokee County in May of 2021 from a video provided to ProPublica.

Nicole Carr And there's a scene in that story where people are beating on windows and forming prayer circles and yelling at the school board meeting. And no one was arrested, but students and school board members had to be put in a back room for protection and being escorted to their cars.

Adwoa Adusei Cecelia Lewis was chased out of a job. And, the attacks continued when she tried to get a position in another school district.

Nicole Carr So it got me to thinking about the chaos at the school board meeting. What happened to all these people who were escorted out or arrested at school board meetings? What happened?

Adwoa Adusei ProPublica launched an investigation into school board meetings nationally. Because it was clear to Nicole and her team that these attacks on education—on teaching about race relations, history and sexuality—are coordinated attacks. ProPublica found 90 moments of unrest leading to 59 arrests at school board meetings in 30 states. They also found that when those moments of tension happened—when parents read salacious passages from books, or community members shouted about racial or gender indoctrination—that energy and outrage would carry onto the next school board election. 

Nicole Carr So what we're seeing that we haven't seen in the past that makes this super political: school board candidates usually do not declare their party affiliation because it's a nonpartisan race. But to run as the conservative slate and to run as a group of people. Like, say, if you support so and so, then you also support these three. And we hold our campaign events together. The school board fight is important to understand because it's a democracy fight. And what we see change at the school board level ultimately leads up to these rules in the way that we navigate this society.

Adwoa Adusei We started this episode with a story about how state laws impact book bans. We’re also seeing that what happens at a local level in these school board fights gets amplified in larger political spheres. Influence goes both ways. 

Virginia Marshall In her reporting, Nicole talked to a parent named Eric Jensen in Forsyth County, North Carolina who had physically rushed at school board members at one meeting. He was upset about the presence of LGBTQ+ books in schools and the way race was being taught.

Nicole Carr Eric Jensen told me: "You've got to start from the bottom and work yourself up. I mean, you can't just go to your governors and try to make a difference. So you start at the bottom, and the bottom is school boards." I remember standing on his porch and saying, that is striking to me because it is so true. This is where we start. From daycare, Pre-K, Kindergarten. This is the bottom for us. And then we work our way up through this system through Grade 12. And that shapes how we go out into the world. And it shapes our ideas about the people around us. That is democracy.

[Music out]

Adwoa Adusei We haven’t finished the story of Keller, Texas. As the months went on and more books were pulled from shelves, Laney Hawes watched division and unrest at the school board meetings and realized something very important.

Laney Hawes Our school board races here in Keller ISD have ten percent voter turnout. So that means with the ones that are winning, they have like six or seven percent of the community support. That's what they're winning with. That's not a mandate from the people. What that is, is terrible voter turnout and misrepresentation.

Adwoa Adusei This realization—that it was the loud voices of a select group that determined the fate of public education in her community—energized Laney and other parents who didn’t agree with changes the school board was making. So, a group of parents got together and formed a non-profit. They called it “Keller ISD Families for Public Education.” And they found candidates who they felt represented everyone else in Keller. One of them was Haley Taylor Schlitz.

Haley Taylor Schlitz They came to me and they were like, hey, you know, would you consider throwing your name in the hat and running a campaign for school board?

Adwoa Adusei Haley went to Keller ISD up until the 5th grade. Then she was homeschooled, graduated high school at 13, college at 16, and law school at 19, becoming the youngest Black woman in the country to get a law degree.

Virginia Marshall Now, Haley is a high school teacher in nearby Southlake, Texas. When she heard about the book bans in Keller, she went to the school board meeting. She spoke up about books by BIPOC writers that were being removed from school libraries.

Haley Taylor Schlitz This was a very natural next step for me to go to the school board meeting and let them know that you are not representing all of Keller with this decision. I mean, there may be some people in Keller that support you, but there's a lot of people in Keller that don't. And the people who are directly impacted by the books you're banning, you know, Generation-Z, the students of color, they don't support you doing this. 

Virginia Marshall Haley wanted to correct some of the negative experiences she had in Keller ISD. Particularly around how race and racism is handled in the classroom. Talking about slavery in a way that ensures every student is comfortable, as Texas’s new law requires … doesn’t make sense to her. She was motivated, in part, by an experience that she had when she was a student at Keller ISD.

Haley Taylor Schlitz There was a there was an assignment that we were doing when I when I was in fifth grade and the assignment separated the classroom into the Northern family in the Southern family, because we were learning about slavery. And I was in the Southern family as the only Black girl in the class. I was the Mulatto slave girl.

Virginia Marshall For Haley, this assignment was more than just uncomfortable: it lacked important information and context.

Haley Taylor Schlitz There are some things that do need to be read and taught and students really need to learn this is not a deviation of core American values. It was slavery, it was horrific. Students need to learn this information. But not through a play where you make the students of color act out ... So, it's like, it's really, in retrospect to see what was read, how it was presented, the things that they did want to include.

Adwoa Adusei After lots of campaigning, knocking on doors, talking with neighbors, Haley and the other candidate backed by Keller ISD Families for Public Education ... didn't win. But Haley doesn't see her campaign as a loss.

Haley Taylor Schlitz We got 40 percent of the vote, which was really, really ... it was double what we expected. So it was really rewarding to see that not only is there a community in Keller and they're here and we're growing as more and more Gen-Z becomes eligible to vote. But additionally, it shows that people saw my race and resonated with what I was saying.

Adwoa Adusei Now, Laney and Haley are looking toward the next election as a time to educate the community about what the school board does and increase voter turnout.

Virginia Marshall Laney said that voting locally, showing up to school board meetings and having a say in your community’s public education is a movement that people across the country should get behind.

Laney Hawes I had someone on Twitter that was like, why do you keep electing people like this to your school board? And I actually commented to him, someone in Connecticut. And I said: I have a question. Did you vote in your last school board election? And this person on Twitter, you know, replied and said: Well, no, but I live in Connecticut, so I don't have to worry about this kind of stuff. And I was like, oh no. Well, okay. That's exactly how this happened in Texas. Nobody votes. And it very well could happen in Connecticut. So, instead of being mad at Texas for letting this happen, I'm going to ask you to go back home now and get involved and educate yourself and work hard. And, you know, everywhere. Please, please, please. This is what's going to save books. If you really want to fight book banning in America: local elections, school board races, city council races. And until people around America that are complacent decide to actually do something, then this is where we’re going to be.

[Theme music starts]

Adwoa Adusei So, that’s our call to action for you today. Find out when the next school board meeting is in your community, and show up.

Virginia Marshall And, we want to give a shoutout here to the young people who are running for school board in their communities. Haley Taylor Schlitz and Ivan Torres from our first episode are two of the many young people who care about the education of their peers, and they’re stepping up.

Adwoa Adusei A good resource for learning how to talk about book bans, including a guide to attending school and library board meetings, information about contacting your local representatives and more … is Unite Against Book Bans. It’s an initiative of the American Library Association. Visit UniteAgainstBookBans [dot] org to learn more.

Virginia Marshall Borrowed and Banned is a production of Brooklyn Public Library and receives support from the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Equity in Action Grant.

Adwoa Adusei If you want to share a story of how censorship has impacted your life, you can go to BKLYN Lib [dot] org [slash] books [dash] stories. You can submit an anonymous testimonial to help us document how teens, parents, educators and community members are fighting for their freedom to read.

Virginia Marshall The Books Unbanned team at BPL includes Summer Boismier, Jackson Gomes, Nick Higgins, Leigh Hurwitz, Karen Keys, and Amy Mikel.

Adwoa Adusei This episode was written by Virginia Marshall and hosted by me and Virginia. We received production support from Goat Rodeo. Our Borrowed team includes Ali Post, Fritzi Bodenheimer, Robin Lester Kenton and Damaris Olivo. Ashley Gill and Jennifer Proffitt run our social media. Lauren Rochford helps with the emails. John Snowden designed our logo.

Borrowed and Banned is a production of Brooklyn Public Library and receives support from the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Equity in Action Grant and Goat Rodeo.