Kansas bill targets teachers who expose kids to 'harmful' materials

Sparked by a middle-school sex education poster, the bill is one of a series of battles – in Kansas and beyond – over such curriculum and the roles of parents and educators in determining what’s appropriate for children.

John Hanna/AP
Kansas state Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, left, confers with Sen. Dennis Pyle Feb. 20, 2015, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Senator Pilcher-Cook supported a bill, which passed the Senate Feb. 25, that would allow teachers to be prosecuted for exposing students to 'material harmful to minors.'

A bill moving through the Kansas legislature would open teachers up to criminal charges for exposing students to “material harmful to minors.”

Sparked by a middle-school sex education poster to which a parent objected, the bill is one of a series of battles – in Kansas and beyond – over such curriculum and the roles of parents and educators in determining what’s appropriate.

Supporters see the bill as a protection to children in a society where pornographic images and mature sexual language are increasingly common. Opponents say it would not only restrict sex education, but would have a chilling effect on the teaching of literature and other subjects where issues of sexuality come into play.

SB56, which passed the Senate Feb. 25, alters a statute that originally targeted commercial establishments. It would now also apply to public institutions, and would remove the “affirmative defense” protections for K-12 teachers. Such defenses would remain in place for librarians and college staff.

The bill addresses depictions or descriptions of sexual conduct and nudity that are “patently offensive to prevailing standards” for what’s suitable for minors. It targets that which a “reasonable person” would find lacks educational, scientific, artistic, literary, or political value.

But civil liberties advocates and many educators say it’s unnecessary and unreasonable.

“When you tell teachers that they can be …. thrown in jail … for something that somebody deems is harmful to their child, basically that puts a blanket of censorship over the entire state,” says Marcus Baltzell, spokesman for the Kansas National Education Association in Topeka.

Recently, one Kansas lawmaker called a book by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison pornographic, the Kansas City Star reports.

The bill is also “a solution in search of a problem,” Mr. Baltzell says, because schools in Kansas already have mechanisms in place for parents to have their objections considered and to opt their children out of sex education. Baltzell says lawmakers are attempting to distract the public from a fiscal crisis in the schools that he attributes to the governor’s failed policies, calling it “payback” for teachers’ political activism.

The poster that Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook cited in her support of SB56 listed ways people express sexual feelings. These ranged from “Saying ‘I like you’ ” and “holding hands” to various kinds of sex acts. The poster included no visual images. 

A student at Hocker Grove Middle School in the Shawnee Mission district showed a photo of it to her father, and his complaint prompted the school district to take the poster down while it reviewed materials and how they were used.

Some parents “found the poster to be highly offensive and harmful to their children. The damage it caused could not be undone,” Senator Pilcher-Cook said in testimony supporting SB56.

The poster was intended to be part of a lesson plan, and some students and parents said they didn’t object because the students already knew the sexual terms.

Sex-education laws generally require instruction to be age-appropriate, and some limit what educators can say in response to student questions, but to open teachers up to possible criminal charges is “pretty extreme in terms of the types of bills we’ve seen,” says Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues associate at the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks laws that relate to sexual and reproductive health.

At a time when sexuality and sexual abuse come up a lot in entertainment (take the popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey”) and in the news, such issues need to be discussed “so that our teens treat each other well in relationships and protect themselves from abuse,” Ms. Nash says. Trained educators know about what is age-appropriate and “need to be able to respond to student questions and situations students bring up,” she says.

Thirty-seven states require school districts to allow some form of parental involvement in sex-ed programs, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reports. Thirty-five states allow parents to opt their children out.

Another bill being considered in Kansas would change the opt-out approach so that children could take sex-ed classes only if their parents opt them in. Only three states require advance parental consent for such classes, according to the NCSL.

Over the past two decades, the most common types of controversy surrounding sex ed involved censorship or the elimination of materials – making up 17 percent of the controversies in the US between 1993 and 2012, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, which advocates for comprehensive sex ed.

Since 2000, the organization says, 75 percent of the controversies have resulted in outcomes it deems positive, compared with just 44 percent from 1993 to 2000.

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