Katy ISD is missing out on a teachable moment

As an educator who has worked in Texas public schools for 20 years, I know that high school teachers face many challenges when they ask their students to read a book. Even before smartphones and YouTube, before Candy Crush and Snapchat, teenagers were happy to find ways not to read.

Over the years, I have observed that one solution to this challenge lies in providing teenagers with books that are more like “The Hunger Games” or “Monster,” and less like “The Great Gatsby” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Also, with the increasing diversity of Texas classrooms, we would serve our students well by providing them with high-interest, young adult novels that reflect people and experiences with which they are familiar.

Given these two truths — that students need access to engaging books, particularly those that speak to their experiences, the decision by Dr. Lance Hindt, the superintendent of Katy ISD, to remove Angie Thomas’s bestselling and critically-acclaimed novel “The Hate U Give” from high school libraries sets a precedent that could harm educators and students statewide and nationally.

According to data reviewed by The National Center for Education Statistics, only 27 percent of 13-year-olds read for fun almost every day. As teenagers age, this percentage decreases; the same study cites that only 19 percent of 17-year-olds read for pleasure daily.

Often this decline is attributed to limited attention spans and young people seeking out other sources of entertainment and distraction; however, it is also true that teenagers in public high schools are asked to engage with the literary canon, which is primarily comprised of books about adults dealing with adult issues, most of them written by white men.

“One way that children learn about the world around them and other cultures is through the social messages found in stories. Stories help children understand how society perceives their culture as well as the cultures of their classmates, teachers, caregivers, and others, thereby influencing their social and identity development,”  Jamie Campbell Naidoo writes in “The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children,” a 2014 white paper.

Providing teenagers with books that serve as both mirrors of themselves and windows to the outside world, as educator and scholar R.S. Bishop advocated for nearly two decades ago, is vital to their understanding of themselves and others in a world that is constantly changing and becoming increasingly complex.

All students would benefit from reading books like “The Hate U Give,” a novel narrated from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old African-American girl who witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend. The American Library Association’s BOOKLIST gave the novel a starred review because it “…is a marvel of verisimilitude as it insightfully examines two worlds in collision…[a] book that demands the widest possible readership.”

Unfortunately, the readership of Thomas’s book may have narrowed a bit in Texas. Last month, Thomas announced on Twitter that the book had been banned in Katy schools. Bookriot and The Boston Globe reported that, while the school district outlines a very clear process for reviewing resources that a “parent, employee, or district resident” find inappropriate, it appears that Hindt removed the book unilaterally — based on parent complaints that it contains “inappropriate language.”

The superintendent responded to my requests for a comment with this statement:

Katy ISD has a formal process and policy whereby books are reviewed for inclusion in our instructional resources. The District strictly adheres to this policy when reviewing library material in order to follow policy and protect students' First Amendment rights. To this end, consistent with the First Amendment, the District makes no judgment based on viewpoint when its committees meet to consider library materials. However, in accordance with U.S. Supreme Court rulings and Board Policy EF (Legal), the district does reserve the right to remove any book or material which is "pervasively vulgar or based solely upon the educational suitability of the books in question." A review of the book in question shows it to include pervasive vulgarity and racially insensitive language. 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. Contrary to many reports, the book has not been banned. Again, it has been removed consistent with existing legal policy while an administrative review process is underway.

The definition of the word ban is “to officially or legally prohibit,” which appears to be an accurate representation of the actions described above. Semantics aside, the review process that Hindt bypassed states that “access to a challenged resource shall not be restricted during the reconsideration process, except the District may deny access to a child if requested by the child’s parent.”

In another email, Hindt wrote, “My concern is the book was in the hands of an 11 year-old 6th grade student when it has 94 or more references to the “F” word without parental knowledge.  Our current process may determine whether or not it is appropriate at the challenged campus, but lends itself to inconsistencies district wide.”

Again, based on the district’s process, it would seem appropriate to communicate with parents about the book, let them know it’s under review, and remind them of their parental rights.

Also, Hindt’s assessment that Thomas’s book contains “pervasive vulgarity and racially insensitive language” is subjective — yes, the book contains curse words, and yes, African-American characters use the n-word when talking to each other. (It seems relevant to note that “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel taught in Katy ISD English classes, contains the n-word 31 times.) So while this administrative review process is underway, one solution would be to give parents the opportunity to determine — with their teenagers — the appropriateness of this book. In doing so, the district might encourage more community members to engage in a vital discussion of an instructional resource that, according to the district’s own policy,  meets agreed upon objectives because it “[presents] various sides of controversial issues so that students have an opportunity to develop, under guidance, skills in critical analysis and in making informed judgments in their daily lives.”

Katy ISD is a diverse district, with approximately 57 percent of students not identifying as white. Both white students and students of color would benefit from reading and discussing, with the guidance of a teacher, a book that examines contemporary issues surrounding race, privilege, gun violence and police brutality. Some will argue that the banning of Thomas’s book will further encourage students to seek it out, and I have no doubt that this may be true.

I would encourage the superintendent and other leaders of Katy ISD to reconsider their decision to remove “The Hate U Give” from libraries while it is under review. As educators, we are encouraged to look for “teachable moments” and for chances to have “critical conversations.” Angie Thomas’s novel provides opportunities for both to occur, but that can’t happen if students and educators don’t have access to her work.

Stephanie Noll

Writer, lecturer, Texas State University