Collin County: Can You Feel the Fascism?

December 5, 2023

This column is going to piss some people off: good people, people who are friends and allies, people I like. I accept they’re going to be angry with me though, because battling fascism is too important to ignore. I’m happy to piss you off too if you’re someone who reads this and then does nothing. I don’t write this column for fun or because I have nothing else to do (it isn’t and I do). I write it so YOU WILL DO SOMETHING! Voting is no longer enough.

This isn’t the column I wanted to write. I was going to discuss the importance of local reporting since the mainstream media outlets have mostly abdicated that responsibility (looking at you, Dallas Morning News). Then Frank Strong from Austin did what we here in Collin County haven’t and made my point for me. He let us know about Plano ISD banning books, something most of us were unaware of.

I care about censorship. Deeply. When I was a wee lass in high school, I dug through the card catalog (yep, that’s how old I am) to discover that my high school library had none of the most commonly banned books. We didn’t even have books from Langston Hughes, our most famous native son. I was appalled. Then, when I was living in Kansas, the local school board banned Annie On My Mind, the story of a girl realizing she’s a lesbian. Of course, I immediately read it because no one will ever tell me what I can’t read! To this day, I highly recommend it as a lovely book, especially for young girls figuring out their sexuality. I was furious that a small-minded school board prevented students from reading such a gentle and informative book.

Banning books is gross, disturbing, and deeply serious.

But it’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.

Judy Blume, author of Forever, banned in PISD, FISD, and MISD

What Happened in Plano

When I heard that was what Plano ISD was doing, I reached out to all five Democrats on the board and also emailed Nancy Humphrey, a Republican and president of the board. I talked personally (for over an hour each) with 3 trustees and had numerous conversations with teachers, librarians, and upset PISD parents. I learned about formal book reconsideration committees, superintendent power, leadership team members, that stupid BookLooks website (no, I will not link to it; I want it gone!), and the newly passed (and currently litigated) House Bill 900. But mostly I learned about how fascism looks in its early stages.

Texas is currently a fascist state. I hope that doesn’t surprise you but, if it does, head here to learn more about what that looks like. Or read the list of 14 common threads of fascism pictured above. TEXAS HITS ALL OF THEM. That’s incredibly terrifying but, if we want to get ourselves out of the deep hole we’re in, we must face reality and fight. That means making people uncomfortable.

Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than “politics.” They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.

Naomi Shulman

None of us can afford to be nice any longer. That’s why I wrote this column.

Not too long ago, the Clown Show of extremists (the well-funded Moms for Liberty knock-off, Citizens Defending Freedom) targeted PISD. They immediately challenged 70 books they claimed had “sexually explicit content” and demanded (or should I say shrieked about?) their removal. Five of the books on the Censorship List weren’t even in district libraries. That should tell you everything you need to know about how ridiculous these groups are.

Like most districts, PISD has a formal book reconsideration process in which a committee of teachers and librarians – you know, the people who went to school for this stuff – read the entire book and decide whether the overall theme is important enough to overlook any salacious parts. (God forbid students in high school – which is where most of these books are – read about sex because they’re definitely not learning about it through our abstinence-only sex education curriculum. Sheesh! The myriad ways we’re failing our kids!)

The teachers and librarians took their work seriously, put in a lot of hours for little reward (per usual), and decided to retain 35 of the challenged books. Great! The process worked and we can all rest easy, right? I wish!

PISD Superintendent, Dr. Theresa Williams, put out a community notice that PISD is “committed to our community values…and [does] not condone having any sexually explicit content in our libraries or our schools.” Uh oh. I get antsy whenever anyone talks about “community values” because that’s a right-wing talking point and rarely ends well. Whose values are we talking about and how are they determined? In this instance, the values we’re using are apparently those of Dr. Williams because she and her Leadership Team immediately overturned the 35 retained books and removed them from the schools.

This was done without much transparency. Some employees of the district, including principals, weren’t even aware this happened. We don’t know who is on the Leadership Team (besides Dr. Williams) or what qualifications they have that prompted their decision to remove 98% of the books the reconsideration committees said should be kept. They gave no reasons why the books were overturned, so one would be justified in asking why the reconsideration committees were almost 100% wrong in the books they decided to keep and the Leadership Team was almost 100% right. Spoiler alert: in my opinion, the Leadership Team isn’t right. Prevailing legal precedent states that books should be considered as a whole. PISD changed their policy recently so the whole book doesn’t have to be considered but, given legal precedent, I wonder if that’s even legal. Regardless, did each member of the Leadership Team read the entire book? Given the quick turnaround on these decisions, that’s doubtful. Did they consider the book’s theme and overall purpose? I’m skeptical.

In 1984’s movie Footloose, the classic book Slaughterhouse Five was banned by a small-minded, restrictive town. PISD just banned it too. Draw your own conclusions.

Many of the teachers and librarians on those committees feel utterly betrayed and not valued as their expertise and hard work were dismissed. The librarians had it even worse as they were then retrained on a new decision rubric which, for some reason, isn’t one that’s nationally recognized but instead is one I’m told Dr. Williams and her team are creating themselves. From what I can tell, not only did Dr. Williams not trust her educators to decide which books are good for students but she also doesn’t trust librarians with years of education and experience in book challenges to figure out how to handle them appropriately.

This looks bad, like Dr. Williams caved to the Clowns in the vain hope they’d go away. Another spoiler alert: they won’t. Because this was never about books. If you’ll recall, school boards became inundated after Steve Bannon told his followers to infiltrate school boards and “flood the zone with shit.” As a result, idiotic groups began attacking school boards with complaints about masks, moved on to CRT, and now are focused on “sexually explicit content.” It won’t stop there because this is about control, about pushing the goalposts further down the field until they’re in touchdown range in which radical conservatives will have complete control of what others read, learn, and think.

Creeping Fascism

All of the PISD school board trustees I communicated with insisted they’re against banning books. I believe them. I also believe all of them truly want what’s best for PISD students and staff. But they’re missing the big picture, which is, by the way, what happens when democracies die. People give explanations to try and make bad things OK. This is some of what I’ve heard:

It’s only 1/10 of 1% of the books in the library. That doesn’t matter. When you start removing books, when you decrease the number of books in your libraries, it doesn’t stimulate student curiosity or academic rigor. Students are diverse and benefit from reading diverse books. At the end of the day, you’re preventing students who may benefit from those books from reading them.

We’re only removing books with sexually explicit content. We won’t remove books that center around LGBTQ or racial issues. Yes, you will…later. Banning books is a slippery slope that leads to more control over content, not less. Once on the path, it will lead to more. But even if the intention to protect “certain books” holds true, books with sexually explicit content are often ones dealing with women’s issues and sexual abuse. If books like The Handmaid’s Tale (patriarchal control over women’s fertility), The Bluest Eye (sexual abuse), Nineteen Minutes (date rape), and Forever (first sexual experience) are some of the books being removed based on the dreaded “sexually explicit content,” then we have a problem. Because this means they’re focusing on books discussing and critiquing issues women must handle. While oppression is certainly not a competition, the group that’s faced (and lost) the biggest attacks of late are women. It seems like the district wants to prevent students from recognizing, understanding, and dealing with issues that, sadly, are far too common for women and girls.

The book issue is a distraction, a waste of resources, and an issue that’s relatively unimportant compared with the big issues they’re facing. Yes and no. Are there huge issues – things like achievement gaps, facility management, and busing concerns – that require hard decisions? Yes, but the First Amendment is also A Big Deal. Book banning is exactly what creeping fascism looks like (it falls under #11 in the Early Signs pictured above). Fascism is like an abusive relationship. It doesn’t start out fully abusive; it’s the small things that, over time, build into big ones. Book banning is just the beginning. We need to stop it here.

We’re just complying with HB900. No, you’re not. HB900 is mostly about (illegally) forcing vendors to give books a rating system. School libraries aren’t to have harmful material which is (as defined by Section 43.24 of the Penal Code) material whose dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest of a minor; is offensive to prevailing standards as to what is suitable for minors; and is utterly without redeeming social value for minors. I doubt any books in PISD’s library would fall under these categories. If there are, that’s what reconsideration committees are for and those educators determined the 35 books were fine.

It should be noted that state law provides a LIMIT on what we can do. It should in no way be a guide nor should anyone comply before it’s necessary. That’s how fascism thrives: by using fear to convince people to do things they wouldn’t normally do. By the way, HB900 was written by Frisco’s own Jared Patterson and every one of the Republican representatives from Collin County (with the strange exception of Matt Shaheen – maybe he was absent that day) are co-sponsors. They did this to our schools and are leading our slide toward fascism. Run for office, campaign, and vote accordingly.

We have absolute trust in our Superintendent. That’s lovely, but what about having trust in your other employees, like your teachers and librarians? Don’t they deserve your support too? Plus, no matter how good someone is, they always need oversight. When I pointed out that allowing Dr. Williams to overturn reconsideration committee decisions is putting way too much power in the hands of one person, I was told she has a Leadership Team also involved in these decisions.

While no one would tell me who comprises this Leadership Team (or what their expertise is, although I’m guessing it isn’t teaching English or Library Science), I would like to talk about one member of her team. At only 32 years old, Danny Stockton’s already had an interesting career, possibly because he has deep connections to the Paxtons…our indicted Attorney General who’s still under investigation by the FBI and his wife who helped him flee a subpoena and who proposed a bill (she’s a Texas senator) that would make one of the things he’s accused of not a crime. According to Stockton’s LinkedIn profile, he graduated from law school and immediately started working for the AG’s office. He briefly worked for a law firm doing estate planning before getting scooped up by Frisco ISD to do legislative work. Sources there tell me he was likely instrumental in their book banning.

Stockton spent 5 years in FISD before going to PISD in October to become Dr. Williams’ Chief of Staff, a position so new that it still doesn’t appear on their Organizational Chart. As far as I can tell (it’s been difficult to get information on this), the CoS position wasn’t publicly posted nor was anyone else considered for the job. I’d love to know what made Stockton the best person for that position. There must be other people with legislative experience, ones not intimately tied to Republicans who’ve proven to be no fans of public education. Have we already forgotten about Ken Paxton suing school districts over their mask policies? And, since the budget was already completed by the time the CoS position was created, I’m not sure how it’s being funded. Perhaps there are good answers for all of this but, because they haven’t been transparent, it feels sketchy.

As for sexual explicitness, The Handmaid’s Tale is a lot less interested in sex than is much of the Bible.

Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale Graphic Novel, banned in PISD and MISD

Yeah, just a quick aside about The Bible. Although all the fuss is over “sexually explicit content,” it’s incredibly odd that the status of The Bible is still pending. It’s the only book on PISD’s list that has the word PENDING (in all caps) next to it. If we’re removing books to avoid uncomfortable discussions about sex, then The Bible should be the first to go. Why isn’t it? Draw your own conclusions.

It Isn’t Just Plano

Other school districts in Collin County are also bowing to fascism. Based on their list, Frisco ISD removed 111 of the 367 formally challenged books. Anything remotely connected to sexual content, from a female Marine’s memoir about her work in changing the military policy on sexual assault (Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience) to Sex is a Funny Word: A Book about Bodies, Feelings, and YOU got banned because it “doesn’t align with curriculum.” Since their curriculum doesn’t actually teach anything about sexuality, that sounds about right. They also banned Trans Mission: My Quest to a Beard and Queer: The Ultimate LGBTQ Guide for Teens. It appears that, unlike PISD, FISD isn’t worried about holding the line and not banning books purely on their LGBTQ content.

Submitting to censorship is to enter the seductive world of ‘The Giver’: the world where there are no bad words and no bad deeds. But it is also the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted. And that is the most dangerous world of all.

Lois Lowry, author of The Giver – Messenger, banned in FISD

McKinney ISD fought off the Clowns only to inexplicably pass a policy using an obscenity definition even more restrictive than that of Texas state law. This policy allowed them to remove 73 books they found problematic without any challenges or formal reconsideration committees. I’ve heard they also informed their teachers that their classroom libraries must align with district policy. As such, they must go through each book to see if it’s acceptable or get rid of their entire library. Since teachers are overworked as it is and don’t have time to consider individual books, you can imagine the option most have chosen. Yet another loss for our kids.

I think most of the responsibility for the MISD nonsense rests with Superintendent/Coach Shawn Pratt. Coach Pratt seems like a good example of how “it’s not what you know but whom” works. He was mentored by Ron Poe (the guy one of our stadiums is named after) and effortlessly rose through the ranks. When previous superintendent Dr. Rick McDaniel retired, Pratt was the odds-on favorite, despite not having a doctorate nor having more than a few years of experience in anything other than athletics. His lack of a higher educational degree was brought forth in community discussion groups by certain people (yes, I was one of them) but this was ignored. Looking back on focus group discussions, it sure seemed like they were just pretending the decision hadn’t already been made.

Banning books gives us silence when we need speech. It closes our ears when we need to listen. It makes us blind when we need sight.

Stephen Chbosky, author of Perks of Being a Wallflower, banned in MISD and PISD

Richardson ISD lists a solid book reconsideration policy on its website as well as an excellent summary of HB900. However, sources there tell me that, if they believe there’s a book that could be problematic, it’s quietly taken off the shelves to avoid the hassle. I’m certain they’re not the only ones doing that.

Allen ISD is the only one of the big districts in Collin County that doesn’t seem to be banning books. I’m not sure why. Their tactic of making the library page on their website difficult to find and not having a public book reconsideration process may have worked. It’s also possible that they’ve already removed problematic books from their shelves, just as librarians in other districts have done. All the removals I’ve mentioned are only what we know about.

Princeton ISD recently had the pleasure of being on the receiving end of the book banners’ ire, with several area radicals berating the school board at a meeting. I guess the extremists believe they got their way in the big districts, so why not expand their efforts?

Keeping Our Democracy

It’s easy to get lost in the rabbit hole of “who banned which books when” but that’s not what we need to focus on. We must keep our sites laser-focused on fascism and realize that banning books is just where it starts. Almost no one wakes up wanting to be a fascist (clearly, Trump does) or agrees with fascist policies. It happens slowly. Today it will be banning these books, tomorrow it will be placing rating systems on books, the day after that it will be severely punishing librarians for giving kids “porn”, and the day after that will be taking away the troublesome neighbor no one likes. And then. And then. And then. It just gets worse from there.

If we want to keep our great democracy, we must fight for it. What you’re doing now isn’t enough. If you don’t want to live in a fascist state, step up. Vote in every single election, including the local ones, which, by the way, most of you don’t do. Run for office if you have even an ounce of ability to do so. Given the people we have in office, it clearly isn’t that tough. If you can’t run, don’t rest until you convince someone who can, and then help them campaign. Most of all, participate in your local government by volunteering on boards and commissions and attending city council, county commissioner, and school board meetings. NO MORE EXCUSES because, quite frankly, we’re running out of time.

Now, are YOU ready to get pissed off at me? Here goes. When kids in public schools in Texas are being poorly educated because they’re so drastically underfunded that they have few qualified teachers and when their libraries contain only The Bible (still PENDING) because every other book was deemed unacceptable, I’m sure those of us in the re-education camps will feel good because your child’s soccer team was well-funded by your booster club work…or your fantasy football team did well…or because you just couldn’t be bothered to spend your free time saving our freedom. We’ll be completely understanding when you eventually join us there. Remember when you felt superior to and puzzled by the German people who stood by and let the Holocaust happen, positive that you’d never let such a travesty occur on your watch? Well, what most of you are doing now is what they were doing then: NOTHING!

Have I made you angry? Good! Get off your duffs and go save our democracy! FYI: The Duff was also banned by PISD.

Comments 3

  1. About The Bible being banned… I’m the one who submitted that request to have The Bible banned in its entirety. When I asked last October why it was taking so long to do the review, this was the response:

    I apologize for the delay. Because we received 70 requests in May, we have been working through the requests as quickly as possible in the order received. We were also trying to find people who have read different versions of the Bible in its entirety recently enough to serve on the committee. As soon as the committee meets and completes the Reconsideration of Library Materials Committee Report, I will send you a copy.

    That’s the problem. There are so many versions of the Bible available for reading and, with it being a massive collection by itself, it makes it almost impossible to be removed.

    1. Post

      According to their new policy and based on the overturning of 35 books so quickly, a book doesn’t have to be read or considered in its entirety. All it needs to be banned is one small objectionable passage and The Bible has plenty of those! You and I both know why they’ll never ban The Bible and it has nothing to do with its size or number of versions.

  2. Oh, the hours spent in researching this. Impressive! What’s not impressive is the way our school board trustees/school leadership, even those who are allies and supporters of public education, have let themselves fall into the trap of giving in to the extremists and taking away our children’s ability to read, grow, and learn the best way for them. It’s a mistake. And it’s dangerous. Thank you for bringing light to this issue.

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