After a year of arguing with officials over sexually explicit books in students’ libraries, families in Belton Independent School District are protesting the trustees’ failure to act on their concerns about exposing kids to material many consider pornographic.
Last week, an activist librarian at Belton Middle School defended the books in a TikTok video that went viral, focusing even more attention on the district’s book disputes.
On Monday night, local parents, grandparents, and community members showed up at Belton’s school board meeting with signs and handouts depicting the objectionable content found in the books: graphic images and explicit descriptions of minors engaged in sex acts, violent rape scenes, and pervasive profanity.
Frustrated by the board’s inaction, they called on trustees to set new district policies for reviewing and removing age-inappropriate and educationally unsuitable books, as well as policies for vetting books before they go to library shelves.
The protesters left disappointed with the board’s response that they would “look at” the book review issue during their next meeting, but they will continue to press for action.
They also said if this board doesn’t act, voters will elect trustees who will.
“We are going to take it out of our schools,” said a Belton grandfather shocked by the explicit material found in the schools’ libraries.
“You need to stand up and listen,” he told the board during public comments. “Make a move on this, quickly.”
“I bet y’all hoped that this issue would fizzle out,” said Tricia Richner in her comments to the board. “One year ago, we brought to your attention these inappropriate books. There is simply no context where sexual relations between children are appropriate.”
Richner told Texas Scorecard a group of community members began checking the district’s libraries for sexually inappropriate content last August.
Like many parents across the state, they were surprised to find explicit titles like “Gender Queer,” “Lawn Boy,” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue.”
Richner says an administrator “quietly pulled” some of the books, but they remain in limbo as the board drags it feet on updating the district’s policies.
“The current challenge procedures are basically roadblocks to get parents to give up,” she said. “Soon, a year has passed, and you’ve done nothing but file the same documentation three or more times. It’s a joke.”
The board delayed for months while waiting for the Texas Education Agency to update guidelines for selecting and removing library materials, in response to a November directive from Gov. Greg Abbott to “develop statewide standards to prevent the presence of pornography and other obscene content in Texas public schools.”
TEA released the model guidelines in April, but the district is still stonewalling. Richner says she doesn’t know why, since TEA affirmed that school boards have legal authority and responsibility over library materials. All Texas schools’ TEA-approved legal policy allows district officials to remove books that are educationally unsuitable.
Several other parents and community members urged the board to take action.
“If children can’t take sexually explicit material into schools, they shouldn’t be able to take it out of schools,” said Belton mom Farrah Stalter.
“This is erotica,” said Janet Brown, describing the contents of “Milk and Honey,” a book containing graphic sex scenes. She gave a copy to each board member so they could personally review the content.
“Why do you feel Belton ISD children should have access to sexually explicit material?” she asked. “This should not be available to minor children in school libraries.”
After the meeting, Brown said, “Let’s see if the board trustees will finally act to protect children in our public schools.”
Banned Books Week
Parents also objected to “Banned Books Week,” an American Library Association event held in September that encourages middle- and high-school kids to read books that have been challenged by parents.
Belton mom Hillary Hickland told the board most of the books on the ALA’s list have recommended age ranges beyond the middle-school years of 11-14, and the main reason for the challenges is sexually explicit content.
“We are sending mixed messages to our students when we provide literature promoting language and behavior that would result in just discipline for students,” Hickland said.
One middle school librarian was already directed by her principal to remove her Banned Books Week display after a parent complained about explicit book titles. She refused.
Mia Wilson, a librarian at Belton Middle School, was introduced by the district in May 2020 as “an amazing educator.”
Last week, she recorded a tearful TikTok video describing how “enraged” she was about being told to take down her “banned books” display.
The video has received more than a million views.
“I said, ‘No, I’m not taking it down,’” Wilson says in the video, the first of several she recorded on the subject. “It’s in our ALA standards, and every middle school in the district participates.”
She’s also mad that the principal won’t tell her which parent complained:
I am the authority on the subject in the school. No one else holds my position of librarian; therefore, no one else is informed enough to have that conversation and educate parents about why we do the things we do.
In a second video, Wilson says she told her principal again she wasn’t taking down her display “until due process is followed, because that is censorship.”
She also says she sent him copies of the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights (under which the ALA opposes all attempts to restrict any minors’ access to any content) and Freedom to Read statement (which asserts minors have a constitutional right to read anything they want, without parents’ knowledge or approval).
The ALA and its affiliate, the American Association of School Librarians, set standards in the profession across the country. They provide training, recommend reading lists, and reward activist librarians. In April, ALA members elected a self-described “Marxist lesbian” to head the organization.
“These are books that may not have actually been ‘banned’ from libraries but were challenged,” she acknowledges.
She says “LGBTQ and critical race theory are pretty big” reasons for book challenges, but she fails to mention the top reason parents and others object to the books: sexually explicit content.
“I’m kind of hoping that this fizzles out or blows over,” Wilson adds.
She is reportedly not in school this week.
Board members didn’t address Wilson or Banned Books Week, but a couple of them offered excuses for their inaction over the past year.
Trustee Manuel Alcozer said the board is “in the process” of updating the district’s book review policy, but they want to get it right and “there’s a lot that goes into that.”
“In our next meeting, we’re going to look at what goes into that,” he said. “Hopefully we’re going to make it better. At the end of the day, we’re going to draft something.”
Trustee Ty Taggart said he would be angry if his kids were exposed to the materials that parents described during their comments, but like Alcozer, he said the district needs to takes its time to draft a policy that would stand up to opposition.
“I know we’re getting there,” he added.
School District Shenanigans
Meanwhile, Belton ISD is still under investigation by the Texas Education Agency over complaints that the superintendent engaged in illegal electioneering by pressuring school staff to vote in favor of the district’s May bond propositions.
The district’s bond-boosting activities included threatening teachers’ salaries, using children as marketing tools, and sending emails to teachers letting them know that their votes were being tracked.
Belton ISD paid Huckabee at least $71,500 to help promote the district’s 2022 bonds.
The two bonds totaling $174 million—all of which must be repaid, with interest, by local property taxpayers—passed by margins of 41 votes and two votes.
The bond electioneering complaint against Belton ISD is among the “unprecedented number of concerns” TEA is receiving about misconduct by Texas school districts and educators.
School Property Tax Increase
At Monday night’s meeting, Belton ISD trustees approved a tax increase.
District officials claimed it’s not an increase because the proposed rate is lower than last year, but it’s higher than this year’s no-new-revenue rate, which means it’s generating more tax revenue from the same taxpayers. Any rate higher than the no-new-revenue rate is a tax increase.
The district’s Budget and Tax Rate presentation failed to include the actual NNR rate so voters could compare it to the proposed rate and see that it is an increase.
Community members can contact the Belton ISD Board of Trustees with any comments or questions about the budget, bond election, or book review process.