A lawmaker in Kansas is seeking to criminalize the distribution of “harmful” materials to minors in schools, lifting an exemption for teachers using approved materials. Advocates working against the bill worry it will have a “chilling” effect on teachers in the state.
“It’s purely a reaction to this instance of this one particular sex ed poster,” said Micah Kubic, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, who testified against the bill. “This poster must be the most impactful poster in the history of the poster.”
The text-only poster, displayed in Hocker Grove Middle School in Shawnee, Kansas, in 2014 was titled, “How Do People Express Their Sexual Feelings?” and included the words “hugging,” “grinding” and “anal sex.” Kubic said the bill is unnecessary. “The teacher who put that up was disciplined by the school almost immediately after that parent complained,” he said.
“There was a list of sexual acts, some of which were highly offensive,” Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook told KMBC 9 News. Pilcher-Cook previously introduced a bill that would criminalize surrogate parenting, saying “you are creating a child purposely that you know is not going to have a biological mother.”
The bill would criminalize displaying material to minors that is “harmful,” including “any description, exhibition, presentation or representation, in whatever form, of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement or sadomasochistic abuse when the material or performance.” The bill looks likely to pass the state Senate this week, and carries a penalty of up to six months in jail. Kansas already has a law that protects minors from “harmful” material, mainly to prevent adults from distributing pornography to minors. As it is written now, the law includes an exemption for teachers, but this bill aims to remove that exemption. Pilcher-Cook has not yet responded to ThinkProgress’ requests for comment.
ACLU Kansas and teachers worry that the language is overly broad, and that teachers could be targeted for things that are part of a normal curriculum, including books with sexual or controversial themes like Huckleberry Finn. A lesson an anatomy, say, might be dicey for a biology teacher, or an art history class could be scrubbed because some of the content included nudes.
Marcus Baltzell, communications director at the Kansas National Education Association, warned that teachers already worry about the effect. “One person’s objection about something is now putting a blanket of silence, a blanket of censorship over an entire state. Is that what we want?”
“It makes me feel like I need to self-censor,” Baltzell, who is a certified teacher, said. “Now I have to consider anything that would have any kind of text or imagery or anything that would be remotely questionable by say one individual I can be brought up on charges for that.”
Baltzell pointed out that there are already rigorous standards in place to deal with parents who object to materials presented by teachers. “This is a solution in search of a problem,” he said.
Another bill inspired by the poster that inspired the “harmful” materials bill would require schoolchildren to “opt in” to sex ed rather than “opt out.” Baltzell, though he didn’t comment on the details of the state’s sex ed program, did note that an opt in standard is harmful. “We think that’s difficult and dangerous for the child who needs this education but doesn’t have that same active and involved parent that another student does,” he said.
According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, Kansas’ statewide curriculum already prescribes “a complete program of abstinence until marriage in human sexuality that is developmentally appropriate, including information about sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV/AIDS.” Research has shown that students educated in an abstinence-only environment tend to have sex earlier and more often than students educated with more comprehensive materials.
ACLU Kansas’ Kubic pointed out that there are only three other states that currently have “opt in” requirements. “We’ll be going in the wrong direction,” he said.