A bill that would make it easier to prosecute teachers and school administrators for using lesson materials deemed harmful to minors gained initial approval in the state Senate on Tuesday.
Senate Bill 56 removes a provision in current law that protects schools from such prosecution. The bill leaves the protection intact for universities, museums and libraries.
A similar bill last year sparked controversy and did not make it to the Senate floor. This year the bill passed easily on a voice vote without a single objection.
Senate Democrats had planned to fight the bill, Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, said. However, Haley had stepped out of the chamber and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, was in a meeting in his office when the bill came up for discussion.
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In their absence, no other Democrats stepped forward to oppose the bill. There are six Democrats in the Senate besides Haley and Hensley.
“I’m equally confused considering the chilling effect it has or will have on education in our state,” Haley said after the vote. “Someone just dropped the ball.”
The bill will be up for a final vote tomorrow, but the opportunity to amend it and voice objections was Tuesday. Haley said there was no excuse for Democrats failing to fight the bill.
“How do we fight it tomorrow? Tomorrow’s just a straight up or down vote. … It’s just shortsighted and unfortunately we did not have a more vigorous debate,” Haley said. “I stepped away for a moment, as did other members, and I came back and the bill had already been discussed.”
Educators and free speech advocates have voiced strong concerns about the bill, which comes in response to the display last year of a poster in a Shawnee Mission middle school sex education classroom that listed specific sexual acts. The poster was removed after parents complained.
Supporters say the bill is necessary to ensure children are protected from pornography and other harmful materials at school.
Some Republicans – including Sens. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita; Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain; Garrett Love, R-Montezuma; Rob Olson, R-Olathe; and Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover – would not talk about the bill after its passage.
Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, whose district includes the Shawnee Mission School District, said the bill “protects children and the rights of parents.”
She also said the bill would allow controversial material to still be taught if it has literary or scientific value. She called the notion that the bill could lead to a teacher being prosecuted for teaching “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” ridiculous.
Pilcher-Cook was not surprised that the Democrats did not object to the bill.
“I think they saved themselves,” she said. “To argue against having parents to have this control for their children to me really is just a non-starter.”
That wasn’t the issue for Democrats, said Tim Graham, Hensley’s chief of staff.
“Were we caught unprepared? Yes. Were we scared to speak on the bill? No,” Graham said.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, noted that when Kansas City television stations covered the controversy of the poster, they blurred out the sexual terms “because they knew it didn’t pass the smell test for indecency.”
Views from teachers
But Liesl Wright, an art teacher in the Wichita school district, e-mailed this reaction to The Eagle after the vote:
“My first thought: Oh no! This again? I’d be in trouble. I was showing my high school art students charcoal drawings of nude people just today. I do it all the time. You know when the religious laws regarding art are more restrictive than the European Renaissance, you’ve gone too damn far!
“It’s a very frightening thought for art and science teachers in particular,” she wrote.
Mark Desetti, legislative director of the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, called the lack of debate on the bill extremely disappointing.
“There should’ve been at least objections made. I don’t know if it would’ve made a difference, but it should have been there,” Desetti said.
He contended the bill could allow a teacher to be prosecuted for teaching a controversial book that had been approved by the local school board for its literary and educational merit. He said even if prosecutions don’t result in convictions, their mere possibility would have a damaging impact on education in Kansas.
“We’re going to self-censor to the point where nothing controversial is ever put before kids,” Desetti said. “How do we get kids to think critically and challenge ideas? Everybody talks about let’s think out of the box. No, let’s not. Let’s cram everybody into this little box and scare them into not doing anything that people might find an objection to.”