LEANDER, Texas - Some students in Leander ISD took a sick day on Wednesday but not because they didn’t feel well. Parents in the community organized the LISD SICK Day event to bring attention to an ongoing controversy surrounding books.
"The district basically took an academically rigorous book list for language arts and completely overhauled it," said "Marie," a Leander ISD parent that wanted to remain anonymous.
Parents that FOX 7 spoke to are frustrated with the recommended reading list for student book clubs - which is how students obtain their language art credits. They are concerned about what’s not on the reading list as well as what is on it.
"They’re just laden with profanity in a sense that adds no value to any kind of critical thinking or analysis of the books themselves," said "Noni," another parent that wanted to remain anonymous.
Noni and Marie said books on the reading list include depictions of child rape scenes, gang rape, profanity, and explicit sexual content.
"It’s like porn," said Craig Buchner, another parent talking about one of the books on the list, "In the Dream House," which is currently being reevaluated by a school district committee.
"It’s one thing if he hears this profanity from other kids at school," said Buchner, referring to his 12th grader. "It’s another thing when it’s a book written by an adult and endorsed by adults."
Along with the graphic text, parents are concerned about the academic level of the books. For example, one book assigned to 9th graders has a Lexile text measure of HL660L, which is about a 3rd-grade reading level.
Additionally, parents said that some "classic" novels on the list, like "The Handmaid’s Tale," are actually graphic novel versions, written by an entirely different author.
"Our issue is that they’re graphic novels with barely any words," said Marie. "This is a language arts class, and these kids are going to have trouble with college preparedness when they graduate."
However, a district spokesperson said that the book clubs purposefully offer a variety of options to accommodate students at different reading levels. The goal is to offer diverse, interesting and accessible options that readers of all abilities can learn to analyze, critique and discuss.
The district also has a Community Curriculum Advisory Committee - made up of parents, students, principals, and community members – that is continually reviewing books on the list. Six were removed this school year, including that version of "The Handmaid’s Tale." There are currently 120 being reevaluated.
Earlier this month, authors of the books removed from the list - and others under review - signed a letter defending their literature, pointing out that many of the books are stories featuring LGBTQIA+ characters or characters of diverse ethnicities.
In the letter, they said in part: "Exposure to such books is vital to the project of empathy-building, of rectifying historic gaps in whose stories are shared and consumed, and of forging a more inclusive, equitable, and just society."
However, parents FOX 7 spoke to said those arguments are missing the point. "It’s frustrating to hear the narrative about parents concerned about child rape content being in their children’s school books and conflating that with LGBTQ bigotry," said Marie. "I take real issue with that, it’s not the truth, they’re misrepresenting what the issue is."
They said that the issue also goes further than just the books themselves.
"There’s a lot of boundary crossing that’s happening in the classroom with teachers sort of imposing their personal viewpoints onto the students," said Noni. "It violates district policy, and it doesn’t teach critical thinking skills when you’re telling students what to think and not teaching them how to think for themselves."
A spokesperson for Leander ISD said the district has had an ongoing dialogue with the community over the book club curriculum since last fall. They shared the following statement with FOX 7:
"Leander ISD strongly believes students should attend school. We continue to work with our community on evaluating curriculum and preparing our students to live in a diverse world. Any time there is a concern from parents about material offered in our schools, our teachers and staff make every effort to listen, engage and provide flexibility where necessary. Our staff will continue evaluating the book club titles through our Community Curriculum Advisory Committee while encouraging independent reading by offering choices encompassing a variety of topics, voices and cultures. We look forward to refining our process to ensure these goals are met while respecting the concerns of those in our community. "