“This matters for everyone no matter your ideology, no matter who you are,” Mary Ellen Cuzela told The Texan. “Our kids should not be oversexualized.”
Cuzela is one of six parents who attended a Katy Independent School District (ISD) board meeting last month to read aloud from books found in the district’s school libraries.
Before Cuzela and others read during the public comment period, Katy ISD board President Greg Schulte told attendees he had heard the speakers might use “vulgar language” during the meeting.
“I would ask that you refrain from doing that, but I can’t forbid you from doing that,” said Schulte. “So, if you [are] a parent with children in the room and you think they may get offended I just wanted to prepare your mind; there may be some vulgar language. You may want to step outside with your child.”
Although Cuzela also appeared on the Michael Berry Radio show in Houston, Berry told his audience he could not share the content Cuzela had read during the board meeting since the material would violate obscene content rules enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
On the Monday following Cuzela’s radio appearance, Katy ISD Superintendent Ken Gregorski notified parents and staff by email that the administration would formulate a plan for reviewing all of the district’s young adult literature and would work to improve the vetting process for future materials.
Gregorski also shared a newly created online portal for parents to request immediate review of books that may violate the district’s policy for “pervasively vulgar” materials and announced that five books read by parents at the board meeting had been permanently removed.
Katy ISD is not the only district under scrutiny, and parent Rebecca Clark also attended a November board meeting for nearby Lamar Consolidated ISD (LCISD) to read aloud explicit content from books the district made available to students.
Clark and other parents have asked LCISD to audit existing resources and improve vetting procedures for not only physical books, but materials offered online, through book fairs, and in classrooms.
LCISD has announced it is planning to form a new committee composed of parents and district staff to create new guidelines for choosing appropriate books.
Although some observers and parents have been warning for years about inappropriate materials in public school resources, under COVID-19 pandemic lockdown policies more parents have had a closer look at curriculum and materials either presented or made available to students.
Earlier this year, parents finding that Leander ISD had included sexually graphic books on a list for student-led book clubs successfully pressured the district to apologize and agree to craft new policies for vetting literature.
The growing parent outcry over public school resources that contain obscenity has prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to request action from the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), the Texas Education Agency (TEA), the State Board of Education (SBOE), and the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC).
While many parents have focused on books on recommended reading lists or those found in physical libraries, many public schools offer students access to electronic databases that are promoted as homework and research resources.
Through TSLAC, more than 86 percent of Texas public school districts and public charter schools purchase access to a state online resource known as TexQuest. The service offers schools access to several third-party resources, including electronic book database EBSCO, which the National Center on Sexual Exploitation has accused of providing graphic sexual content to K-12 children.
Although Clark and other parents have asserted that they could file police reports about obscene materials made available to minors, Texas law protecting minor children is worded to include a loophole.
According to Section 43.24, it is an “affirmative defense to prosecution” if the distribution or exhibition of the material was “by a person having scientific, educational, governmental, or other similar justification.” The same affirmative defense to prosecution is also offered under the section prohibiting sexual performance by a child.
State legislators Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) and Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) unsuccessfully authored bills to remove the loophole in 2019 and 2021 respectively. The Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee passed the 2019 measure, while the Senate Criminal Justice Committee did not hold a hearing on Hall’s proposal.
Some school districts such as Austin ISD have openly refused to comply with a request from Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) to provide an accounting of sexually explicit or racially preferential books, but others such as North East ISD in San Antonio say they have already pulled over 400 books from library shelves for review.
A few media outlets have described the books in question as merely explaining sexuality or “celebrating gay sexuality,” but Cuzela and other parents point out that the books are extraordinarily explicit in describing sexual acts of all kinds.
“I don’t care how confused you are about who you are or what you are, no one should be talked about in the way these books are describing,” said Cuzela.
“The self-worth and dignity of every student should be guarded. That’s why I’m fighting this.”
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.