Controversy arises at Eanes ISD after students were read book centered on transgender boy

Parents at Eanes ISD are at odds after students were read a book pertaining to the story of a young transgender boy. (Amy Rae Dadamo/Community Impact Newspaper)
Parents at Eanes ISD are at odds after students were read a book pertaining to the story of a young transgender boy. (Amy Rae Dadamo/Community Impact Newspaper)

Parents at Eanes ISD are at odds after students were read a book pertaining to the story of a young transgender boy. (Amy Rae Dadamo/Community Impact Newspaper)

Eanes ISD parents and community members are at odds after a teacher at Forest Trail Elementary School read a fourth-grade class a book later deemed inappropriate by the district.

Superintendent Tom Leonard began the March 9 trustees meeting by addressing the controversy surrounding the choice of curriculum. Leonard stated EISD has received a litany of emails since late last week after parents were informed by Chief Learning Officer Susan Fambrough that students were read a book focused on gender identity.

The book, "Call Me Max" follows the journey of a young boy who identifies as transgender. "Call Me Max" was written as a picture book and intended for children ages 7-9, according to its description.

Several years ago, the district adopted a curriculum focused on responsible social behavior, which begins at the fifth-grade level—"Call Me Max" was not included in that curriculum, according to Leonard.

Notably, parents have the ability to opt out of this social curriculum since it is not required by the Texas Education Agency within its Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills requirements.

Furthermore, EISD administration was not involved in the selection of the book, which Leonard said was actually the result of individual teachers sharing a resource. Once officials became aware, a directive was given to teachers to halt its usage.

“We do not teach gender identity in our school district,” Fambrough confirmed, adding that doing so would require board approval.

The district’s response to the event has garnered criticism from both sides of the argument.

The community-led group Eanes For Equity drafted a petition in support of the book following the incident, which received more than 1,146 signatures in 24 hours—a majority of which were from parents.

“Transgender kids have the right to exist and be seen in our schools,” the online petition reads. “While we always hope as parents that we have time to prepare for hard conversations with our children, we know we are not always given that luxury and trust in our ability to respond, learn, and grow with our children.”

Trustees also heard from several parents both in favor and opposed to the book during the meeting’s open forum session. All comments were read by Deputy Superintendent Jeff Arnett as board meetings are conducted virtually due to the pandemic.

“Can we just maybe tap the breaks a bit on the sudden radicalization of the curriculum?” parent Will Franklin wrote. “Can we maybe not promote partisan causes and ideologically extreme concepts as if they’re unquestionably positive values with a broad buy-in from the community?”

This is the not the first time EISD officials have come under fire regarding the topic of diversity and inclusion. The board unanimously voted in July to employ Mark Gooden, a diversity equity and inclusion, or DEI, consultant, after several dozen former and current students attested to racist behavior within the district.

Weeks of students’ public testimonies, community support and the hiring of Gooden ultimately led the district to adopt diversity, equity and inclusion as a board priority for the 2020-21 school year.

Still, Leonard said the EISD community may not be aware of how far along the district is in its DEI process, which began a little over six months ago. At the moment, the work is primarily focused on staff development, training, support and the improvement of the school’s climate.

EISD is also examining district policy, handbooks, operations and hiring practices. However, there have been no adjustments made to the approved curriculum, and according to Leonard, that discussion may not begin until next year.

EISD would not see any changes to its curriculum until the 2022-23 school year, according to Leonard. This would also involve community input and would be brought in front of the board of trustees for a public discussion and vote.

“We know there’s some strong feelings on both sides of it. We’re trying to find a middle ground, and we do it through dialogue, and we have conversations and we can get there,” Leonard said.

EISD officials did not take any action during the March 9 meeting, and the subject was publicly presented for discussion purposes only. There was also no discussion had regarding the teacher who read "Call Me Max."

In the meantime, board members called for support and compassion for all students within the district.

“I think what was missed in so much of the animosity back and forth is we’re talking about kids, and ultimately we’re here to support kids and every single kid in this district. That’s our priority,” trustee Jennifer Champange said.

By Amy Rae Dadamo
Amy Rae Dadamo is the reporter for Lake Travis-Westlake, where her work focuses on city government and education. Originally from New Jersey, Amy Rae relocated to Austin after graduating from Ramapo College of New Jersey in May 2019.