Seventh-grader Jordan Banks loves playing video games and drawing cartoons. He dreams of going to art school, but instead his parents enroll him at preppy Riverdale Academy, where the most popular sport is lacrosse and everyone wears Vineyard Vines. At first, Jordan has trouble fitting in—he’s one of the few Black students at Riverdale, and teachers keep confusing him with other students of color—but he makes friends quickly. By the end of the year, he even has a girlfriend.
Banks is the protagonist of New Kid, a Newbery Medal–winning graphic novel by children’s author Jerry Craft that recently became an unlikely cynosure of controversy in the Katy Independent School District, which serves 90,000 students at 74 campuses in the suburbs west of Houston. This past fall, New Kid was removed from KISD libraries after a petition signed by around four hundred parents criticized it for “teaching children that their white privilege inherently comes with microaggressions which must be kept in check.” The district, regularly ranked among the best in the Houston area, also canceled a virtual speaking appearance by Craft, whom the petition accused of pushing critical race theory—an academic framework for studying persistent discrimination that is typically taught only in colleges and graduate schools.
The petition was written by Bonnie Anderson, a mother of three KISD students who is running for an unpaid position on the district’s board of trustees in the nonpartisan May 7 election. In a recent interview with Texas Monthly, Anderson said that district libraries were rife with books pushing the “unscientific notion that people who are white are born with privilege because of the way, you know, society has been constructed.” Anderson also wants to ban many books that address LGBTQ issues, which she labels “pornography,” and eliminate the district’s few remaining pandemic-related health measures, which she has compared to Jim Crow–era segregation.
Across Texas, this week’s school board elections will test the power of the anti-CRT, anti-masking movement that has turned classrooms into ideological battlegrounds over the past two years. Promoted by right-wing think tanks, media outlets, and political action committees, the movement chalked up its biggest victory this past November, when Republican Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s race on a “parents’ rights” platform. His success has spawned many imitators. In Texas, insurgent school board candidates have blasted teachers for everything from political indoctrination to sexual “grooming.” It’s part of a moral panic that is playing out in thousands of school districts across the country. But few districts have attracted more attention than Katy, where the decision to ban New Kid received international publicity.
The movement is also facing pushback. In KISD, other parents created a counterpetition that garnered more than 2,100 signatures, calling for New Kid to be put back in libraries and for Craft to be re-invited. “Mr. Craft simply illustrates the perspective and perceptions of a black kid in an environment where almost everyone else is white,” the petition reads. “We want everyone to know that we are an extremely diverse community and do not take lightly the hatefulness of those who see Jerry Craft or his writings as a threat.” (Thirty-six percent of KISD students are Hispanic, 30 percent are non-Hispanic white, 16 percent are Asian, and 14 percent are Black. The superintendent and all seven school board members are non-Hispanic white.) In response to this pressure, the school district rescheduled Craft’s talk and returned New Kid to libraries—although it restricted the book to grades four and above.
In February, a group of KISD high school students spent a week distributing books that have been frequent targets of censorship, including Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Among the organizers of the book giveaway was eighteen-year-old Cameron Samuels, a senior at Seven Lakes High School. “We’ve seen during the past several months that school districts across Texas, including KISD, have been banning books that touch upon issues of race and LGBTQ identities,” Samuels said. “The books that are being banned disproportionately fall under those categories. It’s clear that these books challenge notions of white supremacy and heteronormativity.” (KISD superintendent Kenneth Gregorski declined an interview request for this story.)
Under KISD policy, anyone living inside the district can file a complaint about a library book. According to district spokesperson Maria DiPetta, that triggers a “formal review,” during which the district removes the book from circulation for as many as thirty days while a committee made up of KISD educators, teachers, and administrators examines its content. In addition, anyone with access to the KISD network (parents, students, teachers, and staff) can file an online complaint that triggers an “informal review,” during which the book remains in libraries while it is scrutinized by a separate committee made up of both educators and parents. If a book is deemed “pervasively vulgar,” it can be banned entirely or restricted to certain grade levels.
However, according to an NBC News investigation, most of the reviews in the Katy district have been initiated without parents making a formal challenge. The investigation also found that senior district administrators have ordered books removed from libraries even after the review committee voted to keep them in schools. The district says that only ten books have received a blanket ban for all grades. Three of those books feature LGBTQ protagonists, and most include sexual content.
In April, the ACLU of Texas wrote a public letter to KISD warning that its policy violates both the First Amendment and the Texas Constitution. “Schools cannot remove books from their libraries based on the ideas they contain,” ACLU attorney Kate Huddleston told Texas Monthly. “When you look at the breakdown of the books that KISD is evaluating, it’s clear that books about marginalized communities are being targeted for review.” Huddleston said she was unaware of any other Texas district that removes books from its libraries after receiving a complaint. If KISD does not change its policy, Huddleston said, the ACLU may sue the district.
It’s not just books that are being banned. Samuels, who identifies as queer and uses they/them pronouns, has spent much of their senior year challenging KISD’s internet filter. As a freshman, Samuels used a school computer to access the website of the Advocate, a national LGBTQ news outlet, only to find that the district had blocked the site under the rubric of “Alternative Lifestyles/GLBT.” At the time, Samuels said, challenging the policy seemed impossible. Recently, though, Samuels and other students have successfully petitioned the board to unblock several websites, including that of the Montrose Center, a Houston nonprofit that offers counseling and health care to the LGBTQ community. Other sites, such as those of the Advocate and the Trevor Project, a suicide-prevention hotline for transgender and nonbinary youth, remain blocked. Samuels said district administrators told them that the Trevor Project’s chat feature could give pedophiles access to students. (A Trevor Project representative said the organization conducts background checks on employees who respond to crisis calls, and that the site’s chat rooms are moderated to ensure their safety.)
Censorship has been front and center in this year’s school board election. Two of the seven KISD board positions are up for grabs, and both races feature a candidate who favors book bans. Anderson is running for Position 2 against incumbent Lance Redmon and educator Patricia Haggard, while current Position 1 board member Duke Keller Jr. is facing four challengers, including Victor Perez, a retired energy-industry executive whose campaign website promises he’ll “remove graphic, vulgar books and material from school libraries and internet sites,” as well as “remove political ideology and social agendas from the classroom.” (Perez did not respond to an interview request.) Anderson and Perez have been endorsed by political action committees such as the Texas-based Freedom Matters Action Group, which opposes vaccine mandates. The Freedom Foundation of Texas, which says it is dedicated to “combating anti-freedom indoctrination,” recently donated nearly $7,000 to Perez’s campaign—the largest single contribution to any candidate in the district.
During a candidate forum hosted last month by the Katy Area Chamber of Commerce, both Anderson and Perez attacked the current board for requiring masks during the early stages of the pandemic, mandating that students who tested positive to stay away from school for ten days, and failing to keep “pornographic” material out of school libraries. “I want to protect the kids from early sexualization,” said Perez, who has two grandchildren who attend KISD schools. “I also want to protect them from certain ideologies. Just let them be children.”
Given the low turnout for school board elections—last year, about 4 percent of eligible KISD voters cast ballots—it’s difficult to predict who will win. Perez is a first-time candidate, while Anderson is running for a second time. Last year, she finished third out of six candidates in the race for Position 6, winning 19 percent of the vote. Since her previous campaign, Anderson has kept herself in the news, organizing the petition against New Kid and speaking regularly at school board meetings, where she’s been kicked out twice for being disruptive—most recently in January, when security guards removed her when she refused to stop heckling the superintendent.
Asked by Texas Monthly whether, if elected, she would be able to work with the rest of the seven-member board, Anderson responded that “there are currently five of them that I probably could not work with.” She’s conducted an inflammatory social media campaign, railing against transgender athletes and calling out KISD teachers by name for supposedly advocating CRT. Samuels said that Anderson has repeatedly confronted them at school board meetings, mocking them for wearing a mask and accusing them of distributing porn—a reference to the book giveaway. (Anderson’s response: “I’ve confronted Cameron for distributing books to children which have been removed for being pervasively vulgar. That’s pretty gross.”)
“She just has no respect,” Samuels said. “I think people like her are what make the school board meetings so divisive. She’s using students as political pawns.”
Redmon, the first-term school board member whom Anderson is trying to unseat, seems bewildered that the race has become so nasty. A graduate of Katy High School, he played football at Rice University, earned a master’s degree in Christian education from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is currently the president of a fiberglass distributing company. Although he considers himself “extremely conservative,” Redmon lamented the recent politicization of school boards. “It doesn’t need to be a partisan position,” he told Texas Monthly. “Sadly, the national conversation is turning into that, and it kind of scares me for the state of our public schools.” Redmon defended the district’s book-review policy, although he said it could be improved. “It’s a new area that was not a focus in the past. I believe our policy has worked once those books [the ten books that KISD has banned for being ‘pervasively vulgar’] were found in the library.”
Samuels told me that the best solution is for KISD students to get more involved in how the district governs itself, whether by speaking at board meetings, protesting against censorship, or even voting in school board elections. Newly eligible to vote, Samuels is looking forward to making their voice heard at the ballot box this week. “Candidates like Anderson and Perez are claiming to protect the children,” Samuels said. “But they are leaving us out of the discussion.”