Teachers and school administrators could be prosecuted for presenting material perceived as harmful to minors under a bill considered in a House committee Tuesday.
SB 56, which passed the Senate last year, stems from a 2014 controversy in the Shawnee Mission school district over a poster in a sex education classroom that listed oral sex and other acts under the heading: “How do people express their sexual feelings?”
Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, the bill’s sponsor, said children could have been irreparably harmed by viewing the poster “because it affects their brains.” She added that “state laws should protect parents’ rights to safeguard our children against harmful materials, especially in schools.”
Current law protects teachers and school administrators against the misdemeanor charge of presenting harmful material, a blanket term for material of a sexual nature, to minors if it is part of a lesson. The bill would remove that protection for teachers at public, private and parochial schools. Conviction on the charge could mean a fine or up to six months in jail.
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Opponents say teachers would be vulnerable to prosecution for presenting controversial works of art and literature.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, asked whether a teacher could be prosecuted for showing an image of Michelangelo’s sculpture David, which depicts male genitalia. He quoted sexual puns in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and asked whether teaching the play could be a criminal offense.
Pilcher-Cook pointed to a section of the bill that says harmful material would be defined as material “a reasonable person would find ... lacks serious literary, scientific, educational, artistic or political value.”
Carmichael continued to press the issue, and Pilcher-Cook acknowledged it would be up to individual prosecutors and juries to make that determination.
‘It’s a tsunami’
Phillip Cosby, spokesman for the American Family Association of Kansas and Missouri, said that a Mennonite community might have different standards from other communities in Kansas. He said each community should have the right to set that standard.
It’s a tsunami. … And maybe we’re the Dutch boy who’s just putting their finger in the dam.
Phillip Cosby, American Family Association of Kansas and Missouri
Cosby spoke against what he called the moral decay of the culture, at one point complaining that he has to see ads for erectile dysfunction medication when he watches Kansas City Royals games with his grandchildren.
“It’s a tsunami,” Cosby said. “And maybe we’re the Dutch boy who’s just putting their finger in the dam.”
He urged the committee to “be the Dutch boy.”
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, noted that Cosby has championed legislation recently passed by the House to enable citizens to convene grand juries in cases where they think prosecutors are not pursuing wrongdoing. He asked Cosby whether he planned to convene grand juries to prosecute teachers if SB 56 becomes law.
Cosby said citizen grand juries can be used to prosecute any crime.
Meant as a deterrent
Pilcher-Cook also said the bill would deter teachers from using inappropriate material in the classroom, saying the fact that the poster was “posted without fear is a problem in and of itself.”
Tom Witt, a gay-rights activist who testified against the bill on behalf of his husband, a public school teacher, homed in on that statement.
“I took out my Sharpie and I wrote it down real big because it struck me: fear,” Witt said. “This bill is to strike fear into the hearts of teachers.”
This bill is to strike fear into the hearts of teachers.
Tom Witt, husband of a public school teacher
Witt submitted the American Library Association’s list of top 200 banned books to the House Judiciary Committee. The list includes works ranging from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series.
“Here’s what my husband wants to know: Which of the books on the list are going to send him to jail?” Witt said. “That’s all we need to know.”
Rep. Mark Kahrs, R-Wichita, asked Witt why teachers should have a special protection against being prosecuted, noting that nonteachers can be prosecuted if they share harmful material with minors.
He also asked Witt whether he thought it was appropriate to teach children about the sexual acts listed on the poster.
Witt responded that he wasn’t a sex education teacher but that his personal opinion is that if kids are engaging in these activities, then they probably should learn about the risks.