Penguin parents, anti-bullying tips, teen romance: What we found inside three books flagged by a Texas lawmaker’s schools inquiry

When Justin Richardson set out to write "And Tango Makes Three," along with his now-husband Peter Parnell, his goal was to create a simple story. He and Parnell gleaned inspiration from a New York Times article that chronicled the story of two male penguins, Roy and Silo, who together take care of a fertile egg that's set to hatch.

But along with its release in 2005 came pushback and repeated attempts to remove it from library shelves. More than 15 years later, the book keeps getting flagged.

"And Tango Makes Three" is one of nearly 850 works at the center of an investigation spearheaded by state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, into the type of books that Texas school districts keep in their libraries and classrooms.

It's still unclear how Krause, who's running for state attorney general, selected the books on the list or what he intends to do with the findings of his investigation, but his inquiry comes as educators across the state scramble to implement new limits that lawmakers approved this year on how issues related to race and American history are taught in schools. It's part of an effort by conservatives to weed out "critical race theory," which is an academic discipline that looks at racial inequities on a systemic level, but experts and teachers have said the approach is not being taught in K-12 schools.

Other politicians in Texas, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have also recently taken an interest in the content of books found in school libraries, recently targeting the nonfiction book "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe. On Wednesday, Abbott called for a criminal investigation to see whether students have access to "pornographic books" in Texas public schools.

Krause's list has sparked criticism for the titles it focuses on. It includes several books on topics such as race, sexuality and puberty, and most of them were written by women, people of color and LGBTQ writers, according to analyses by the Dallas Morning News and the editorial book site Book Riot. Some authors whose works appear on Krause's list say he's targeting literature specifically created for children and young adults that helps them feel understood and broadens their worldview. On Twitter, users have latched on to the hashtag "#FReadom," uplifting some of the titles included on the list.

Titles range from picture books like "I am Jazz" by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings to popular young adult novels such as "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" by Jesse Andrews. Books that could show up on a college syllabus also made the list, including "Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot" by Mikki Kendall and "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander. Two works from the American Library Association's Top 10 list of Most Challenged Books of 2020 are also on Krause's list — "George" by Alex Gino and "All American Boys" by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds.

To get a better idea of what kind of books are included on Krause's list, The Texas Tribune chose three titles — a children's book, a young adult novel and a self-help book — to examine their themes and content. The selection is not meant to be representative of the entire list but is based on the variety of their content, length and recommended age level.


"And Tango Makes Three"

By Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole. Amazon.com Recommended Grade Level: preschool-kindergarten.

Based on true events, "And Tango Makes Three" tells the story of Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo in New York City who are a couple and become parents to a baby penguin named Tango.

In the book, Roy and Silo engage in the same mating routines as opposite-sex penguin couples: They sing together, swim together and create a nest to sleep. After the two attempt to nest a rock in hopes that it will hatch, a zookeeper comes up with the idea to let Roy and Silo nest a real egg that needs care.

After taking turns caring for the egg and keeping it warm, it finally hatched and the two penguins became fathers.

Throughout the book, readers are exposed to the recurring theme that family and love can exist in different forms. Each page contains illustrations and short text written in the third person, making it easy for young readers to follow along.

Richardson, one of the book's authors who has worked as an educator and psychiatrist, said prior to writing the book, he had come across parents who were searching for age-appropriate ways to talk to their children about same-sex relationships. So he and Parnell worked to craft a story in a "language that kids can understand."

Justin Richardson, left, M.D., and his husband, Peter Parnell, co-authors of Justin Richardson, left, and his husband, Peter Parnell, co-authors of "And Tango Makes Three," in Manhattan, New York, on Nov. 7, 2021. Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

"It's a classic structure. It's like 'The Little Engine That Could' or any of those children's books that have a character who seems a bit of an underdog and who can achieve their dream," Richardson said.

In response to Krause's list, Richardson said even if Krause doesn't specifically intend to have the books on his list removed from schools, the mere act of compiling such a list can have chilling effects.

"This is clearly an escalation," Richardson said. "And it's quite concerning. It's especially concerning to think that our children and their access to books that represent them are now the target of an active political theater."

The book doesn't contain profanity, violence or any content commonly deemed inappropriate for young children.

"Avoiding Bullies?: Skills to Outsmart and Stop Them"

By Louise A Spilsbury. Amazon.com Recommended Grade Level: 4th-6th grade.

This book is a quick guide that teaches kids and teens how to identify bullying and its different forms.

The book identifies different types of bullying: verbal, relationship or social, cyberbullying and physical bullying. It also homes in on prejudice and the possibility that some bullies may target "people who are more obviously different from themselves."

Prejudice is further explored in the book as one section explains why some people become bullies and how their actions can affect victims of bullying.

Readers are also equipped with strategies on how to confront bullying such as talking with a teacher or parent. But while it points this out, the book also warns readers that sometimes authority figures themselves can be bullies.

"Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe"

By Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Amazon.com Recommended Grade Level: 7th-9th grade.

Set in El Paso during the late 1980s, "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe" tells the story of a blossoming friendship between teenagers Ari, a social recluse and the novel's protagonist, and Dante, his charismatic best friend.

The book details their struggles as they come of age and traverse the close relationships in their life, particularly Ari's relationship with his parents: his father, who's a Vietnam War veteran, and his mother, who is a teacher and often empathetic toward Ari as he grapples with young adulthood. In the book, Sáenz delves into the dynamics of familial relationships and romantic relationships as Ari and Dante's feelings for one another deepen.

Throughout the book, readers see Ari try to deal with the intricacies of being a teenage boy along with his anger at his parents — who refuse to talk about his brother, Bernardo, who went to prison when Ari was 4 years old — and at himself, as he struggles to admit he has feelings for Dante, who's opened up to Ari about his attraction to boys.

In addition to exploring sexuality and masculinity, the book touches on race, ethnicity and what it means to be Mexican American.

The book contains some profanity, violence and nudity along with mentions of teenage drinking, sex and the trials of puberty, but there are no intimately explicit scenes.

At its core, the book is about love, family and learning to communicate one's most vulnerable feelings. Benjamin Alire Sáenz, the book's author, said it's also about "belonging and accepting" and posing the question, "Why do we exile people?"

"It's a hard book to hate," Sáenz said.

Regarding the book's placement on Krause's list, Sáenz said some politicians might feel the novel threatens the idea of what an American citizen is and looks like. But since its release in 2012 and despite some scrutiny over its content, Sáenz has seen people embrace Ari and Dante.

"Books can transcend the culture that they come from and be [a part of] the culture they come from as well," he said.

Disclosure: Amazon Web Services (AWS) and New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

ACLU of Texas sues Houston-area school district over gender-based dress code’s long-hair policy

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas is suing a Houston-area school district over a dress code policy it says has led to multiple students being disciplined for having long hair.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include six boys and a nonbinary student ages 7-17 from Magnolia Independent School District. According to the lawsuit, which was filed in federal district court Thursday morning, the Magnolia ISD gender-based policy "imposed immense and irreparable harm" on the students, some of whom claim they have worn long hair for years while attending school in the district without any repercussions.

The lawsuit says the students have been threatened with or sent to in-school suspension for weeks at a time; some were placed in a "disciplinary alternative education program," leading three of them to unenroll from the school district. The suit also states that while the plaintiffs have been disciplined for the length of their hair, other students with long hair, such as those on high school football teams, have not faced discipline.

"To be kicked out, pushed out, of school entirely simply because of their gender and their hair is really unconscionable," ACLU of Texas staff attorney Brian Klosterboer said.

Klosterboer said the ACLU warned Magnolia ISD numerous times about how its dress code policy's gender-specific requirements violate equal protection under the 14th Amendment and Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in education institutions on the basis of sex.

In a statement, Magnolia ISD disagreed with the ACLU's claims and said it was reviewing "the lawsuit with its legal counsel and looks forward to the opportunity to respond to the Court."

"This system of differentiated dress and grooming standards have been affirmed by courts and does not inhibit equal access to educational opportunities under Title IX," the district said. "The rules are included in the student handbook each year and are similar to the codes of approximately half of the public school districts in Texas."

In a letter sent to the district in August, the ACLU of Texas said it filed a grievance in 2019 on behalf of a Magnolia ISD parent who said her son was told to cut his hair or he'd be sent to in-school suspension. The letter also cited reports the ACLU of Texas received about students repeatedly being threatened with disciplinary action or being suspended for having long hair.

Danielle Miller, whose 11-year-old child is nonbinary and a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the district, said she received a phone call from her child's school at the beginning of this school year and was told that her child would have to cut their hair. The Texas Tribune does not disclose children's names for privacy reasons.

Miller said her child was "just in absolute devastation and tears" when she told them they would have to cut their hair.

Danielle Miller prepares her two children for school in their home in Magnolia on Oct. 21, 2021.Danielle Miller prepares her two children for school in their home in Magnolia on Thursday. One of her children is a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit against the Magnolia Independent School District over its policy on students' hair length. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

"... Based on [my child's] reaction and how harsh and traumatized they were, I realized that we weren't going to be cutting [their] hair," Miller said.

Miller's child was placed in in-school suspension for nine days, she said. The suspension was postponed during a 60-day window to appeal the decision, which has almost run its course, Miller said.

Miller said her child has had long hair for a couple of years and that their hair length had never been a problem before.

"I have no idea what changed," Miller said. "[The district is] not saying anything, they're not responding to anybody in the community about it."

The district said its administration and board of trustees have heard from a small group of parents about concerns over the dress code policy, and they "are currently in the process of considering parent grievances on this subject matter."

According to Magnolia ISD's 2021-22 student handbook, hair must "be no longer than the bottom of a dress shirt collar, bottom of the ear, and out of the eyes for male students." Hair also cannot "be pinned up in any fashion" or "worn in a ponytail or bun for male students."

However, the ACLU argues many of the plaintiffs have worn long hair for years while enrolled in Magnolia ISD and have not faced any discipline until this year. Klosterboer said some school districts in Texas tend to rely on "old and outdated case law" as the basis for their dress code policies.

Another plaintiff, a 9-year-old Latino student identified in the lawsuit as A.C., wears long hair that he keeps in a ponytail and out of his face. His family was told on the first day of school this year that he would need to cut his hair or be sent to in-school suspension, the lawsuit says. His mother said many men in A.C.'s family wear long hair, including his dad and uncle. A.C. did not cut his hair and was placed in in-school suspension for five weeks, where he was separated from other students and wasn't able to attend his regular classes.

In September, he was sent to a "disciplinary alternative education program" outside of school for seven weeks, where he faced potentially harsher punishment. According to the lawsuit, students who don't comply with the school district's hair length policy and are sent to the alternative education program may be required to have a parent sit in class with them, go to before- or after-school detention, or lose their desk, among other measures.

This month, A.C.'s family unenrolled him from the district. However, the suit says his placement in an alternative education program has made it difficult for him to enroll in another district and he is now being home-schooled.

"Magnolia ISD has harshly punished my son and driven him out of school entirely because he is a boy with long hair. ... The district needs to stop harming our children," Azucena Laredo, A.C.'s mother, said in a statement.

In 2020, a federal judge granted two Black students from a Houston-area school district temporary relief after they were told they would have to cut their hair, which they wore in dreadlocks, to abide by district dress code policy. The case, which caught national attention, also landed on the radar of Texas lawmakers, who introduced their own version of the CROWN Act, legislation that would prohibit hair discrimination based on hair texture and protective styles that are usually associated with race. The legislation, House Bill 392, advanced out of committee during the regular session but was not taken up on the House floor for a vote.

Outside of Texas, federal courts have ruled in cases from Indiana and North Carolina that gender-specific dress codes could be linked to gender discrimination under federal law, according to the ACLU and the Texas Association of School Boards.

Disclosure: Texas Association of School Boards has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas bill restricting transgender student athletes’ sports participation sent back to the House with amendment

In the final days of this year's third special session, Texas lawmakers advanced a bill that would restrict transgender student athletes from playing on school sports teams that align with their gender identity. The House must approve an amendment added by the Senate before it can go to the governor's desk.

The legislation is primed to become law after the state Senate voted 19-12 on Friday to pass House Bill 25, authored by state Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring. The Senate floor vote followed a swiftly held committee meeting where a 24-hour notice rule was suspended and the Senate's Health and Human Services Committee voted to advance the legislation. Under HB 25, students would only be permitted to compete on sports teams that correspond to the gender listed on their birth certificate that was assigned at or near the time of birth.

Friday's vote is the fifth time this year the Senate has passed legislation targeting transgender youth participation in school sports. Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have pushed for the legislation during this year's sessions. With HB 25 advancing, Texas joins at least five other states that have passed such legislation.

Critics of the legislation, including transgender advocates, say it unfairly targets transgender children and puts them and cisgender children at risk for being discriminated against.

Getting the bill through the House proved to be a major hurdle for lawmakers this year after legislation faltered in the lower chamber during the regular session and two subsequent special sessions, which included a House quorum break.

The birth certificate requirement under HB 25 goes further than rules from University Interscholastic League, which governs public school sports in Texas. According to UIL rules, gender is determined by a student's birth certificate, though the governing body also accepts birth certificates that were modified to match a student's gender identity. UIL has said the process for checking birth certificates is left up to schools and districts.

HB 25 would disallow acceptance of modified birth certificates by requiring a student's gender to be determined by their original birth certificate unless their original certificate contained a clerical error. However, the process for how a birth certificate will be checked for whether it has been legally modified is unclear.

An amendment was added in the House, but later removed in the Senate, to the legislation that defined "biological sex" as "the physical condition of being male or female as determined by the sex organs, chromosomes, and endogenous profile of the individual at birth." Another House amendment ensures the legislation complies with state and federal laws related to the confidentiality of student medical information.

Swanson has said that the intention of HB 25 is to "protect the right to fair competition in sports" for women and girls and uphold Title IX, a federal law that prohibits education institutions that receive federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex.

State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who authored similar legislation this special session, said during a news conference in support of HB 25 that passage of the bill had "been a long time coming."

"A lot of times we say bills are transformational. This is actually one that drew the line in the sand: that biological females should stay with biological females and biological males should stay with biological males."

During the House floor debate on HB 25, Democrats said legislators should think about the mental burden such legislation would have on transgender children who already predisposed to bullying and thoughts of suicide.

"This [bill] is not about girls' sports, this is about trying to police people and their behavior and their gender expression," said state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, secretary of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus.

Major employers within the state have also signaled their opposition to the law, with about 70 employers and investors signing on to a letter from the coalition Texas Competes, speaking out against restrictive state policies that target LGBTQ people.

In the past year, more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth in the U.S. have seriously considered suicide, and 1 in 5 have attempted suicide, according to The Trevor Project's 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health. More than 90% of LGBTQ Youth reported that recent politics have negatively impacted their mental health.

Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ Texans, said in a statement that HB 25 tells transgender children "that Texas is not a safe place for them to live."

"Transgender kids, adults, and their families are not political collateral," Martinez said. "They deserve every fundamental right and opportunity that all other Texans have."

Disclosure: Equality Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas banned abortions at about 6 weeks — but the time frame to get one is less than 2

Texas' new stringent abortion law has been described as a ban on abortions that kicks in as early as six weeks of pregnancy.

It's a characterization politicians have clung to, with Gov. Greg Abbott using it to defend why the law doesn't exempt victims of rape or incest.

"Obviously, it provides at least six weeks for a person to be able to get an abortion," he said Tuesday, arguing it doesn't force those victims to carry their pregnancy to full term.

But in reality, the time frame to get an abortion is much shorter, even if someone realizes they are pregnant right away. And in Texas, more than 80% of abortions happened after the six-week mark.

Measuring the length of pregnancy

The new law does not actually provide a specific time frame for someone to get an abortion but does stipulate that one cannot occur once cardiac activity is detected. That happens around roughly the sixth week of pregnancy.

But calling it strictly a six-week ban fails to take into account the nuance in circumstances many people face when it comes to pregnancy, according to medical professionals and leading medical organizations.

For one, medically, the length of pregnancy is not typically measured from the date of conception. Instead, the new law notes, "pregnancy is calculated from the first day of the woman's last menstrual period." This statement lines up with the typical way doctors initially work to determine gestational age, according to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

But this traditional method assumes a person has regular periods that normally occur about every 28 days, or four weeks. Many women have more irregular periods.

And ovulation, or when an ovary releases an egg, usually occurs about two weeks after the end of a woman's last menstrual period.

"So on the day that you're actually ovulating, sending out the egg, and you have a chance for conception, by convention we're saying that you're two weeks pregnant at that point," said Dr. Rachel Breedlove, who practices obstetrics and gynecology at St. David's South Austin Medical Center. "So, I think it's really confusing for non-medical people to understand how could you be two weeks pregnant? But we're dating it from the last period, not from the date of conception."

About two weeks from conception, and four weeks from their last period, someone could potentially test pregnant after missing the start of their new period. However, unless someone is intending to get pregnant or closely monitoring their period, it's unlikely they'll know they're pregnant within this neat time frame.

For people with irregular periods, their cycle's unpredictability can make it even trickier to determine gestational age or detect if their period is late.

"Most of us do not have clockwork cycles," Breedlove said. "So what do most people do? They wait five to seven days, and so then a lot of people are not even testing until a week after that missed period."

So what's the real window of time someone has to get an abortion under the law?

At the most, a person would have about two weeks to determine if they want to terminate their pregnancy or not under the law. However, medical professionals have said the likely timespan is even shorter.

"I think more likely it's going to be about a week, and even that's going to be sort of an ideal situation," Breedlove said.

There are a handful of reasons the window for termination could be condensed. For example, if a person opts to do a pregnancy test about a week after they've missed a period, which is not uncommon, that shortens the window. Also, in light of the new law being implemented, some abortion providers in the state have stopped performing abortions at the risk they will face legal action, meaning some people may have to scramble to obtain an abortion out of state.

Under previous Texas law, an ultrasound must be a performed 24 hours before a person receives an abortion, condensing an already limited window of time and requiring a person to make two visits. During the ultrasound, the doctor has to describe sonogram images to the person and also check for any presence of cardiac activity. Some interpretations of the new law suggest another ultrasound would need to be done at the second visit to confirm cardiac activity hasn't developed.

"So, that further compresses this timeline because now you have to have two visits," said Dr. John Thoppil, president of the Texas Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "... There have been cases already since this law's been in effect where somebody went in and the next 24 hours cardiac activity progressed and they were unable to proceed."

When can pregnancy be detected via ultrasound?

Usually the earliest that pregnancy can be detected in the uterus through ultrasound is around the five-week gestation period, Breedlove said.

Doctors normally don't do an ultrasound that early unless it's a high-risk pregnancy.

ACOG recommends receiving an ultrasound within a person's first trimester, which is about the first 13 weeks of pregnancy, as the most accurate method to determine gestational age. Breedlove said based on the patients she sees, most come in for their ultrasound at around eight weeks. Some people also may wait even longer and receive their first ultrasound during their second trimester, or at about 18 to 20 weeks pregnant, according to the nonprofit March of Dimes, which focuses on the health outcomes of mothers and babies.

Under the new law, abortion is not permitted once an embryo's "fetal heartbeat" or "cardiac activity" is detected. The law states that "cardiac activity begins at a biologically identifiable moment in time, normally when the fetal heart is formed in the gestational sac," a fluid-filled structure that surrounds an embryo during early weeks of development.

Experts have said, however, that the "heartbeat" moniker politicians have used in the bill is misleading, saying it's not a proper medical descriptor. Although cardiac tissue starts developing in the early weeks of pregnancy, an embryo does not have a fully developed heart by six weeks gestation, when cardiac activity is usually first detected via ultrasound.

"You can't see anything structurally that looks like a four-chambered heart but you can see a flicker [of it]," Breedlove said. "... Usually around five or six weeks, we're just barely able to see it, and it's really too small for us to be able to put a speaker to it and to be able to really hear."

How developed is an embryo at six weeks' gestation?

At about six to eight weeks' gestation, an embryo is at most about a centimeter, according to some doctors.

"It almost looks like a tadpole, in terms of what the embryo looks like at this point," Thoppil said. "So you're seeing kind of in the center of that this flicker of motion, and that's that cardiac activity."

Although cardiac activity can be detected around six weeks' gestation, Breedlove said it's easier to hear the actual heartbeat around the eight-week mark.

"We put basically a Doppler detector where we see that heartbeat flickering and then we can turn on the speaker and then you can hear the blood moving, and so that's the heartbeat that most people are able to hear and that's usually more at the eight-week mark," she said.

Happy Holidays!