You might recognize Leander Independent School District (LISD) in Texas from another memorable school board meeting, in which a parent pulled out a pink dildo as a prop to emphasize her point. It resulted in the district removing 15 books — including the graphic novel adaptations of The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood — and pulling them from student book clubs.
During the September 9 LISD school board meeting, Brandi Burkman also came prepared with props. Her son has checked out Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison from a Leander High School classroom library, and they were both surprised by the content. LISD, like all school boards, has a system for requesting books in libraries are reviewed as well as a process for filing an official complaint about a title. Instead of doing either of those, Burkman gave a speech to the school board meeting, reading out sexual passages, and then contacted the police.
Burkman came to the meeting armed with poster board with passages printed and glued on. She told the people gathered that the book was full of obscenity and sexual content, including a teenage boy reflecting on a sexual act with another boy when they were both in 4th grade. “Who normalizes sex acts between 4th graders?” she asked, before holding up a highlighter pink paper with “Pedophil” (sic) in large font. “Pedophiles.” She went on to liken this book being on school shelves to sexual harassment of students.
In recordings of the meeting, you can hear people being asked to sit down or go outside who are repeating, “We want to know why pedophilia is being taught in our schools.” Others hold up signs with board members faces that read, “RESIGN.” Setting aside the conflation of childhood sexual experimentation with a peer with pedophilia for a moment, Lawn Boy also isn’t in any curriculum. It is available in some grade 11 and 12 classrooms to borrow, but it’s not a mandatory text in any class.
After the meeting, Burkman — still without filing a formal complaint or request for review of the book — went to the Leander Police Department. The Leander Police Department later said two parents filed reports about obscenities in the books and that they were investigating. It’s…puzzling, to say the least, to think that monitoring which kinds of books are shelved in high school classroom libraries is a part of police duties. Obscenities in high school books doesn’t seem to be in the realm of crime, especially when there are existing structures in place meant to deal with these concerns (that aren’t being used).
When LISD spoke to CBS Austin, they explained that they had reached out to Burkman — who “often addresses the school board” — about how to file a complaint or request a review of the title, but have not received one.
Which books are appropriate for high school libraries is a difficult question, and school boards, teacher librarians, teachers, and parents will all have different criteria and will reach different conclusions. There are some books with graphic violence, disturbing themes — and, yes, even sexuality — that are taught in high school classrooms, never mind being available by choice in libraries. It’s also valuable for teenagers to be able to safely explore their sexuality through books.
Of course, there does have to be a line somewhere, and maybe Lawn Boy is over that line. Maybe it is inappropriate for Leander high school libraries and classrooms. Luckily, there is a process in place to deal with these thorny questions: the formal review process. This allows educators with a good knowledge of what is age appropriate and useful for students to re-evaluate titles. After all, it’s impossible for a librarian or teacher to read every book that comes in. Maybe it was an error; maybe it wouldn’t have been shelved if those passages were known beforehand. Regardless, the review process allows time and space to ask those questions and come to an informed decision.
Whether or not you think Lawn Boy should remain on the shelves, it is censorship to have the police department involved in deciding which literature is appropriate and which is too obscene for high school students to have access to. It’s intimidation of the school board and teachers, and it’s inappropriate and worrisome that the police department agreed to “investigate” this as placing a book on a classroom shelf was an illegal act.
If you are local to Leander, please show up to these meetings to show your opposition to this kind of intimidation and censorship. Also check out this post on book challenges that has more ways to combat censorship and book bans, regardless of where you live. If you’re not in Leander, attend school board meetings anyway: it’s impossible to know what decisions are being made behind those doors if you don’t show up.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated the book was borrowed from a Leander high school library. It was checked out from a classroom library.