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Katy ISD libraries pull book about racism, police brutality

Dec 6, 2017 by

Katy ISD officials touched off a social media firestorm this week after they decided to temporarily pull a popular young adult book about racism and police brutality from library shelves at several junior high and high schools in November.

Angie Thomas, author of “The Hate U Give,” tweeted on Nov. 30 that a school district in Texas had banned the book, alluding to Katy ISD.

“I’m saddened to hear that a school district in Texas banned #TheHateUGive, but I’m also empowered — you’re basically telling the kids of the Garden Heights of the world that their stories shouldn’t be told,” wrote Thomas, who is African American, referring to the gang-ravaged neighborhood where the fictional teenage main character lives. “Well, I’m going to tell them even louder. Thanks for igniting the fire.”

Katy ISD Superintendent Lance Hindt disputed Thomas’ account on Tuesday. He said the book was temporarily removed after a parent complained about its language at a Nov. 6 board meeting.

“A review of the book in question shows it to include pervasive vulgarity and racially insensitive language,” Hindt said. “As such, the book has been removed pending further review based solely on its pervasive vulgarity and not its substantive content or the viewpoint expressed.”

The book’s removal reflects a long-running debate over when it’s appropriate to expose students to literary works that tackle controversial topics, particularly when they contain potentially offensive language or adult themes.

The critically acclaimed book, which debuted this year at the top of the New York Times’ Young Adult Books Best Seller list, follows a 16-year-old girl from a poor neighborhood who feels as if she’s living a double life attending a suburban preparatory school. The balance she struck between those two lives is rocked when she sees an unarmed friend shot and killed by a police officer during a routine traffic stop.

Her friend’s death spurs national outrage and local protests, putting the main character under an unwanted spotlight and pushing her toward activism.

The book has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work — Youth/ Teens. It contains profanity and includes references to marijuana use, sex and other topics that some parents have argued are too adult in nature for middle-school-aged students. In Katy ISD, where about 11 percent of the students are African-American, the book was available in the libraries of some junior high and high schools before it was removed.

Anthony Downs, who has two children attending Memorial Junior High and one who goes to Taylor High School, took his complaints about the book to a Nov. 6 Katy ISD board meeting. He said he read 13 pages of the book but was unable to take more. He read some passages aloud at the meeting, which included references to condoms and prescription pill abuse.

“My question to this board is who reviews the books going to junior high schools, because this is absolutely crazy?” Downs asked. “We need to clean up our books, before this becomes our destiny.”

Similar complaints have popped up about a wide range of books, from “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Catcher and the Rye” to “Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan and “Big Hard Sex Criminals” by Matt Fraction.

Last month, the Biloxi, Miss., school board agreed to give students the option of reading the civil rights-era classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with parental permission, after facing a public backlash over a decision to remove it from the required reading list of eighth graders. It remained on library shelves. The board’s vice president told The New York Times that some language “makes people uncomfortable.”

Joseph Thomas, director of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at San Diego State University, said some people cite harsh language as an argument for pulling a book when they are sometimes more upset about the content.

“It does seem like books that tend to use adult language are also books that delve into other troubling subjects,” Thomas said. “I think these books would still bother many adults even if didn’t use any curse words.”

Thomas said similar complaints were raised with “Rolling Thunder Hear My Cry” by Mildred Taylor, which was published in the 1970s. It’s about a young black girl in the 1930s living in the shadow of the “nightman,” a metaphor for the Ku Klux Klan. The book depicts scenes in which the main character discovers the charred remains of lynching victims, which some parents have argued is too violent for school-aged children and encourages racial divisiveness.

“If you have to deal with racism or systemic racism or individual racism, in which many people do, it’s safer to deal with those subjects in pages of a book because it’s a safe place,” Thompson said. “We shouldn’t rob children of the opportunity of having those experiences because it makes us uncomfortable to think of children as being sad — it’s good for their emotional growth.”

Ashton Wood, founder and lead organizer for the Houston Black Lives Matter chapter, questioned why “The Hate U Give” was removed but books such as “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton and some of Shakespeare’s raunchier works are still on library shelves across the Katy ISD. Those other titles also deal with drunkenness, sex and violence, Wood said, but they’re not told from a person of color’s point of view.

He said an urge by some Texans to whitewash history has seeped into textbooks, citing a national uproar in 2015 after a Pearland ISD mother complained to the Texas Education Agency that her son’s textbook referred to slaves as “workers from Africa.”

“It’s a revisionist history, where parents and administrators say ‘Let’s take all the bad out and let’s pretend everything’s fine and happy,” Wood said. “What comes next, we can’t wear our hair a certain way? Will teachers look at us differently if we write about our experiences and our backgrounds? This (book removal) seems small, but it can lead to other things.”

National news coverage of the book’s removal appears to be fueling interest in “The Hate U Give,” said Angel Hill, branch manager of the Harris County library system’s Katy branch. She said the system has more than 30 copies, but all are checked out this week and 11 people are on the waiting list.

Maria Corrales DiPetta, a spokeswoman with Katy ISD, said this is not the first time a book has been temporarily removed from school library shelves after a preliminary review. The fictional book “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” by Jeff Kinney was removed for several months earlier this year but was later returned to district libraries after a final, more thorough review. Parents at an elementary school had complained about the book’s depiction of bullying.

Corrales DiPetta said she does not know when a final review of “The Hate U Give” will be completed. The review will be conducted by the district’s textbook review committee, which consists of librarians, teachers and parents.

“Parents have a right to challenge books, that’s very common practice across most school districts,” DiPetta Corrales said. “We want all our parents to know when there’s a concern, those are taken very seriously.”

Fernando Alfonso III contributed to this report

Source: Katy ISD libraries pull book about racism, police brutality – Houston Chronicle

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