April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Kansas May Criminalize Educators for Distributing “Harmful Material”

Senator Mary sponsored Senate Bill 56.

Senator Mary Pilcher-Cook (R-Shawnee) sponsored Senate Bill 56.

School teachers and librarians have cause to be alert. If voted into law by the Kansas legislature, Senate Bill 56 (SB56) would amend a state public morals statute “by deleting an exemption that protects K−12 public, private, and parochial schoolteachers from being prosecuted for presenting material deemed harmful to minors,” reports Courthouse News Service.

If the bill becomes law, librarians who work with young adult literature, English teachers who teach “controversial” books, including The Red Badge of Courage, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Huckleberry Finn, and sex educators could be subject to a class B misdemeanor charge and, if convicted, serve up to six months in jail.

“Harmful material,” according to SB56, includes “depictions of nudity, sexual conduct, homosexuality, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse ‘in a manner that is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community with respect to what is suitable for minors.’”

“Frankly legislators should stay out of what is taught in classrooms,” says Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC).

The bill, sponsored by Senator Mary Pilcher-Cook (R-Shawnee), who serves on the state senate’s Standing Committee on Judiciary, has captured the attention of the advocacy and education communities, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Kansas National Education Association, and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Kansas and Mid-Missouri. These organizations appeared before the committee on January 22, 2015 to testify against the bill.

Kansas ACLU executive director, Micah Kubic, has criticized SB56 for being “overly broad,” reported The Kansas City Star, warning that the bill “could criminalize teachers simply for distributing handouts, displaying posters, or sharing educational information.”

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the deputy director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) of the American Library Association (ALA), says that the bill, if voted into law, would have a “chilling effect on teachers and librarians who don’t want to be prosecuted.”

Caldwell-Stone goes on to say that she believes the law was created due to a particular incident, and not intended to impact what a library offers—but it would have impact, nonetheless. The “incident” that triggered the drafting of SB56 took place in 2013 at a middle school in Johnson County where a poster was hung outside a sex education classroom, which asked: “How do people express their sexual feelings?” On the poster was a list that included “oral sex,” “anal sex,” and other sex acts. (No images were shown.) After parents complained, the poster was removed and the teacher disciplined.

“Pornography and obscene materials are becoming more and more prevalent in our society,” Pilcher-Cook told The Topeka-Capital Journal, “and it is all too common to hear of cases where children are not being protected from the harm it inflicts.”

“I think it’s an exercise in self-delusion to think that…[sex education] information is totally unfamiliar to these kids,” says Bertin,

She adds that undoubtedly there will be a wide variety of response from parents regarding whether it is acceptable to show what could be considered “controversial” information to kids, but it should be up to educators to decide what should be taught and how to handle the presentation of information—as well as offer a choice for parents to opt out.

The bill is troubling in several aspects to its opponents, but one that Jocelyn A. Chadwick, a former assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, points out is that the bill undermines constitutional precedent—meaning court cases in the past that have protected teachers and the literature they teach, i.e., Monteiro vs. The Tempe Union High School District.

A similar bill was proposed last year, but did not pass, according to The Kansas City Star.

In the meantime, Caldwell-Stone says, “It’s on our list of our bills to monitor.”

Carolyn Sun About Carolyn Sun

Carolyn Sun was a news editor at School Library Journal. Find her on Twitter @CarolynSSun.

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  1. Curtis Halford says:

    It’s a sad day when something more stupid and outrageous than the Westboro Baptist Church idiots can find footing. Are we really heading back down the path of censorship and book burning? I think everyone can agree that children need guidance and some protections, but I really begin to wonder when someone thinks that a book like To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Red Badge of Courage is morally objectionable. First, if you have taught your children to be morally upright and reasonable, they will be able to weather “exposure” to that which might be objectionable. Secondly, I find it amazing that they are more concerned about what might be read in a book (how many kids even know what one looks like?) than what can be seen on network television at all hours of the day. I don’t believe in censorship. I do believe that parents should have some say in what their children are taught, but not to the point that you criminalize a teacher for introducing “college level reading material” into college preparatory high school classrooms. It’s about time school boards answered directly to the parents. Considering what many parents are allowing their children to be exposed to at home, on TV, on video games, and other places; I think Kansas’ legislators would do well to pull their respective heads out of the sand or their asses and look around at what the true standards of their community are. If you teach your children right from wrong and critical thinking skills instead of “mastery of hypocrisy”, you won’t have to worry how they act when confronted with controversial material. They will do what is right and moral, or they won’t… and it won’t be because of some book.

    • Carolyn Sun Carolyn Sun says:

      Curtis, this is precisely the sort of bill that provokes strong feelings and with good reason. You bring up a good point about how parents have a right to have a say in what their children are taught, but criminalizing educators for teaching material is not the way to do that.

  2. Retiredteacher1 says:

    It is really difficult to teach kids to “think critically” when they are not exposed to controversial topics. These legislators don’t want critical thinkers; they want compliant followers, the opposite of education. As these states continue to limit what kids can read, examine, etc., they’ll attract fewer and fewer good teachers.

  3. This bill proposal sounds like they don’t think parents have a right to choose what our children read. I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird which vastly became my favorite. If this bill is past it’s like saying we as Americans are ashamed of these great works of literature. They need to leave those kinds of decisions to a child’s parent.

  4. While not everyone will agree with the motives of this bill, I think it’s important to note that this bill does not name specific titles, and I believe it is incendiary, misleading, and irresponsible for the author of this article to have named The Red Badge of Courage, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Huckleberry Finn as examples of the type of books this bill is intended to ban. Whether you agree with the bill or not, a closer reading of the bill will show the ridiculousness of using these books as examples.

    • Now, Deborah, don’t you know Carolyn doesn’t want anyone to point out how she’s “spinning” this to misrepresent the true intentions of the bill? Why, if she didn’t imply that those classics she named would be banned, her argument wouldn’t be nearly as strong!
      Be careful, dear readers. You are only hearing one side of the argument. Take Deborah’s advice and read the bill closely.
      PS: I am not an advocate for censorship, but I do respect the adoption of community standards and age appropriateness.

    • Carolyn Sun Carolyn Sun says:

      As the author of this article, I am not questioning intentions or motives behind this bill. My point using those classics (which have all been challenged and banned in the past) as examples was to illustrate the danger that such a bill a law COULD inflict. With SB56, there is potential for a wide interpretation (or misinterpretation) of what is considered obscene and/or harmful material to present to minors. The motives behind this bill or parents’ right to have a voice aren’t under scrutiny. There are two main things that are of concern with SB56: 1) removing protections that educators in this country normally/typically have so they don’t have to fear or worry about being charged with a crime for presenting what others could say is “obscene” or “harmful” material to minors in a school setting. 2) the potential “chilling effect” of SB56 on teachers and librarians who fear being charged with a crime. The sponsor of this bill, Senator Mary Pilcher-Cook, was contacted for this article. I did not get a response, and I am certainly hoping for her participation in the next article.

      • A Shawnee (Ks) School Librarian says:

        Good luck getting Ms. Pitcher-Cook to respond to your request.

  5. The fact that two commenters jumped to the defense of the books you named and questioned the wisdom of those who would ban these books proves how misleading the article is. The bill is about keeping students safe from material that portrays sexual deviancy, graphic sexuality, or age-inappropriate sexual content.

    As for the quote by Joan Bertin, executive director of the NCAC: “Frankly legislators should stay out of what is taught in classrooms…” I trust she also believes that should extend to teachers being free to share their religious beliefs and their political leanings in the classroom as well?

    I’m generally not in favor of censorship either, but where children are concerned, when common sense seems to have disappeared, parents need to know that teachers will be held accountable if certain lines are crossed.

    • “….but where children are concerned, when common sense seems to have disappeared, parents need to know that teachers will be held accountable if certain lines are crossed.”

      I think holding them criminally accountable is far over the line of holding someone reasonably accountable. For crying out loud. No wonder the US has a prison population problem. We’re willing to criminalize educators for 12 year olds seeing the words oral sex on a poster.

      This is lunacy.

  6. The Bible has many examples of sexual conduct, homosexuality, sexual excitement, and abuse. Will it, too, be banned as a result of this bill?

    • That is the greatest book in all of history. I love that book.

    • When did they allow the use of the Bible in schools. I thought it kept religion and the Bible out of school.

      • Kansas School Librarian says:

        FYI: My Kansas high school library has many Bibles in its Religion section, along with the Koran, Torah and other religious works. Some of the Language Arts textbooks used, at least in the past, had Bible passages, but the passages were taught as literature as opposed to teaching religious beliefs.

  7. We are criminalizing education of topics that we deem “sexually offensive” yet there is no outcry against what our children see on television commercials. Drugs to help with ED and commercials about “SAM” being “in my pants” are ok? Teachers aren’t trying to sell kids sex they are trying to educate them on a topic that they are being bombarded with.

  8. I am a grandmother, and I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn when I was 11 years old. Still two of my favorite books. I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 14. Genius works of consciousness raising fiction. These books should ALL be required reading for teens. These are books are by no means “harmful materials”.

  9. I anticipate a critical teacher shortage in Kansas. No one worthy of the title “teacher” would be willing to teach under the circumstances that would be created by this proposed legislation.