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‘It’s irresponsible’: Students in Katy ISD speak up against LGBTQ book bans, policies

Three new members joined Katy ISD’s school board in May that have since removed books with LGBTQ characters from the district’s libraries at a record pace and passed a controversial gender fluidity policy. Many LGBTQ students in the district say they feel marginalized.


Students protest outside of Katy ISD's Educational Support Complex on Sept. 1, 2023.


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Around 20 high school students gathered outside of Katy ISD's Educational Support Complex on Friday, Sept. 1. It was the third afternoon in a row they met in the torrid Texas heat, holding signs that read "Protect trans kids," and "Honk if trans lives matter."

The previous Monday, the Katy ISD board passed a new gender fluidity policy that requires teachers in the district to notify parents if a student asks to use different pronouns or identifies as transgender. It also requires students to use restrooms corresponding with their sex assigned at birth.

Duckie, a trans student and junior at James E. Taylor High School, said some students are afraid they'll be outed to parents who will reject them, or worse.

"It's a fear for safety at home that I'm seeing from my trans friends because it's irresponsible, reckless and dangerous to out a trans person without their permission, so it is a really big deal," she said. "I know my friends definitely feel uneasy at home, wondering if their parents have gotten that email yet."

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Duckie's mom, Debby Fredrickson, was also at the protest. She said she's concerned the policy will worsen student mental health.

"I think there's going to be a lot more kids that are just so deep in the closet that they cannot function, and I honestly think suicides are going to go up, and I'm very afraid of that," said Fredrickson.

Others reported an increase in hostility at school in the few days the policy had been in effect.

Alastair Parker, a senior and member of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Cinco Ranch High School, said the policy has emboldened classmates to bully openly LGBTQ students.

"It's making it harder to get other people in trouble for discriminating," he said. "Today, three or four people called me a slur in the hallway. It's definitely made an impact."

Katy ISD board members passed the policy four to three. Its supporters said it's a way to make sure parents aren't kept in the dark and children are protected.

"Parents should be at the forefront of what is going on with their children. I absolutely believe that," said Morgan Calhoun, a new Katy ISD board member.

Calhoun was elected along with two other board members this May. All of them ran on platforms aligned with hot-button political issues, including the removal of library books that purportedly deal with sexually explicit topics.

Since they took office, they halted the district's book purchases and placed books that had already been bought for this school year in storage until they could be vetted.

This included over 10,000 titles, according to public records obtained by Houston Public Media.

On Sept. 14, board president Victor Perez said the books in storage had been reviewed by district personnel and delivered to schools. However, as of Sept. 15, Katy librarians reported they had not yet added the books to the shelves and were awaiting directions for the audit process.

The books removed from Katy ISD's libraries, in keeping with nationwide trends, disproportionately feature LGBTQ characters and themes.

Logan McLean graduated from Cinco Ranch High School in May. She started the school's Gay Straight Alliance last year and also became a regular at school board meetings, where she spoke out against book bans.

"Morgan Calhoun actually made a comment during one of the board meetings. She mentioned that there were Pride sections in elementary and middle school libraries that supported ‘sexually alternative lifestyles' that needed to be removed, and that was why all the books that they had had to be vetted," said McLean. "You know, now, it's finally become clear that it is targeted."

McLean said in recent years, as more students in the district have begun to form LGBTQ student groups, she's felt backlash from students as well as the administration.

"My personal experience as a queer student was [that] things did get worse senior year. There was a lot more harassment and verbal slurs and comments, and there was definitely some administration pushback on our gay straight alliance to do the things that we wanted to do," said McLean. "We did have a meeting where we wanted to hand out books that had LGBT representation in them, and all of them got confiscated by the principal."

The new board has also reworked the district's book consideration policies, making it possible for the board alone to vote to remove a book without formal review and overturn decisions made by the formal review committees, which consist of librarians, educators and parents.

According to Katy ISD's website, between October 2021 and August 2022, 11 total books were removed from Katy ISD shelves. Under the new board, 12 books were removed last month alone.

Board president Victor Perez said, like the gender fluidity policy, the book review process is meant to be a way to protect students and keep parents in control of their kids' education.

"The overriding thing is about parental authority, if you will," said Perez.

While the formal review panel is required to read a challenged book in its entirety before voting on whether to remove it, the school board itself is not. However, Perez said the board is intended to be a backstop in the process, rather than a replacement for book review committees.

"It would behoove the board members, of course, to get really familiar with the book and read the book," said Perez. "I wouldn't think the board would make a decision based on, you know, just perusing it or whatever."

Students protest outside of Katy ISD's Educational Support Complex on Sept. 1, 2023.

Perez, along with the three new board members elected in May, was backed by Texans for Educational Freedom, a right-wing political action committee, or PAC, focused on keeping so-called critical race theory and what they deem "sexually explicit" content out of Texas classrooms.

Duncan Klussman, a professor in the University of Houston's education department and former superintendent of Spring Branch ISD, just east of Katy, said this is simply a local example of a nationwide phenomenon: school boards are shifting focus from academics to ideology.

"The trends across the state and the country have been for some boards or members of the community to run for school boards on ideological issues versus the main focus that boards are developed for," said Klussman.

Historically, PACs didn't invest large amounts of money in small, local school board elections. Within the last few years, however, that's changed.

"School board elections are usually very small elections. They're usually individuals who want to get involved and run for the school board. They're not well-funded elections," said Klussman. "So, when all of the sudden, these national organizations are formed around certain beliefs, and they bring in millions of dollars and then funnel those dollars to very small local elections, they've had a real effect on getting members placed on school boards across the country who are there really to focus on a few ideological issues."

School board elections also generally have low turnout. Only 5 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the Katy school board election last May.

On Sept. 13, Katy ISD's book controversy took centerstage in Washington D.C., in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, where Katy alum Cameron Samuels testified.

Samuels graduated from Katy ISD in 2022 and now attends Brandeis University. They are the executive director of the advocacy group Students Engaged in Advancing Texas.

In front of the committee, Samuels talked about the impact books that had been challenged in Katy had for them as a queer student, such as Mike Curato's Flamer, a novel about a gay boy scout, which was eventually banned by the district.

"I saw myself in the book, having faced similar harassment in school," said Samuels. "Flamer gave me words for my trauma, but it was banned."

Samuels, like McLean, worked to forge a community in Katy for LGBTQ students. However, the hope they have for the district's future is now mingled with fear.

"Where they burn books, they burn people," Samuels said, quoting Marcos Antonio Hernandez.

Students continue to organize. In the meantime, the board removed several elementary school books this month, including Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume and Wacky Wednesday by Dr. Seuss.

Rebecca Noel

Rebecca Noel


Rebecca Noel is a daily reporter at Houston Public Media. She covers a wide range of topics, including state and local government, public health and the Texas electrical grid. Rebecca has also covered Houston-area school districts, including Houston ISD and Katy ISD, some of the largest in the state.Rebecca is...

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