Kan. Bill Would Remove Legal Protections for Teaching Controversial Materials

By Jordan Moeny — February 05, 2015 2 min read
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A bill in Kansas may make it easier to prosecute teachers for providing minors with “harmful” materials, reports The Wichita Eagle. Opponents of the bill say that the proposal could be used to prevent teachers from covering standard materials like classic literature and biology lessons.

Currently, teachers are exempt from such prosecution. However, Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook (R-Shawnee) says, “Pornography and obscene materials are becoming more and more prevalent in our society, and it is all too common to hear of cases where children are not being protected from the harm it inflicts.”

One particular 2013 incident in a Shawnee middle school sex ed. classroom is at the center of this debate. Parents objected to a “highly offensive” poster that listed different ways through which people might “express their sexual feelings,” including oral sex and “vaginal intercourse,” which may be the least obscene way one could possibly reference sex. (The poster, which includes no images and is completely SFW unless you work for Sen. Pilcher-Cook, can be seen in the Lawrence Journal-World‘s article about the situation.)

In response to the incident, 8th grader Lyssa Watland commented on what Pilcher-Cook called “damage ... [that] could not be undone.” Watland told a local news station, “You can say all you want, that your children don’t know these things, but they’ve been knowing these things since maybe the age of 10.”

Representatives from the Kansas branches of the NEA, the ACLU, and Planned Parenthood have all spoken against the bill. David Schauner, writing on behalf of the Kansas NEA, said that “harmful to minors” is such a broad term that it could be used to oppose works like Red Badge of Courage or Huckleberry Finn.

Micah Kubic, executive director of the Kansas ACLU, added that the bill “could criminalize teachers simply for distributing handouts, displaying posters, or sharing educational information. Teachers should not be criminalized for doing their jobs.”

Another Republican, Sen. Forrest Knox, suggested that iPads might fall under the bill’s jurisdiction as well. Knox cited an instance of a constituent whose son looked up pornography on a school-provided iPad. The Office of the Revisor of Statutes was unable to clarify for Sen. Knox whether or not iPads could be targeted under the bill.

In addition, Elise Higgins, the Kansas manager of government affairs for Planned Parenthood, drew attention to the fact that homosexuality is included in the bill’s definition of “sexual conduct” (the representation of which may be deemed “harmful to minors”). Because queer teens don’t already face enough challenges in schools, obviously.

A very similar bill, also introduced by Pilcher-Cook, failed to clear the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. At the time, Wichita English teacher Steve Maack noted the likelihood of backlash from teachers: “If something like this were to pass, I would leave the state. I can’t even imagine teaching under these circumstances.”

Image: Gregory Maguire’s popular novel Wicked could almost certainly be considered “harmful” under the Kansas bill, even if you read it right-side up. David Goehring/Flickr Creative Commons.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.