Politics & Government

Bill would allow prosecution of teachers for distributing ‘harmful material’ to minors

Both chambers of the Kansas Legislature advanced changes Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, in the rules for collective bargaining between school boards
Both chambers of the Kansas Legislature advanced changes Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, in the rules for collective bargaining between school boards File photo

Lawmakers are considering bill that would make it easier to charge and prosecute teachers with distributing harmful material to minors.

Proponents say that would give needed protection to students. Opponents say it could criminalize the teaching of biology or controversial works of literature and that communication is a better option.

Public, private and parochial schools now are protected from prosecution when using such materials in an approved class. SB 56, which was reviewed by the Senate Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice on Wednesday, would remove that protection. The change would not affect colleges and universities.

A similar bill failed to make it to the Senate floor last year after it sparked backlash from teachers and free speech advocates.

The bill is a response to a highly publicized incident at a Shawnee Mission middle school in January 2014. A poster displayed in a sex education classroom listed several sexual acts, including oral sex, under the title “How do people express their sexual feelings?” It did not contain any images.

Some parents complained the poster was pornographic.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, one of the main proponents of the bill, said the poster incident should not be trivialized.

“State laws should safeguard the rights of parents to protect their children from harmful material, especially in schools,” Pilcher-Cook testified. “Pornography and obscene materials are becoming more and more prevalent in our society and it’s all too common to hear of cases where children aren’t being protected from the harm it inflicts.”

Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, a former public school teacher and member of the committee, said the poster incident had “been driven into the ground.” She pointed out that the school removed the poster and disciplined the teacher.

The bill would allow for criminal prosecution of either teachers or principals on a misdemeanor charge when incidents like this happen at schools in the future.

David Schauner, legal counsel for the Kansas National Education Association, submitted written testimony that said the bill could be applied incredibly broadly because the legal definition of material includes books, magazines, films, posters and pamphlets.

“There is a long history of unfounded attacks on legitimate and valued works of literature such as ‘The Red Badge of Courage’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” Schauner said. “Our society is based on an exchange of ideas, and removing the affirmative defense for using these works of literature in a modern curriculum would have a devastating impact on those who teach.”

Gaye Coburn, co-chair of the language arts department at North High School in Wichita, said the proposed measure is unnecessary. She and other teachers communicate with parents regularly, she said, letting them know what students are reading and why, and providing links to more information about selected works.

“We try to be pretty careful about sending letters home saying, ‘This is why I have chosen this piece of literature. This is its value. This is its relevance. This is what we hope to learn from it,’” Coburn said. “If you have an objection, we always provide an opportunity for some kind of alternative assignment.”

For a unit on contemporary young adult literature in her ninth-grade English class, Coburn includes works such as “The Hunger Games” and “Thirteen Reasons Why,” which tackles such topics as suicide and bullying. Some other North High teachers assign Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” a coming-of-age novel that has drawn objections elsewhere in the country.

“Kids have to be challenged, and they have to think about things in order to grow and to develop critical thinking skills. They have to be exposed,” she said.

“Now, I don’t think they should be exposed without their parents’ permission. But I just feel like we have policies in place to allow parents to have that kind of say without creating a criminal environment.”

During the committee meeting, Sen. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, asked if iPads would fall under the bill, saying that a constituent’s son received an iPad from his school and then used it to look at pornography. Knox blamed the school for not placing restrictions on the iPad.

The Office of the Revisor of Statutes, which analyzes the legal language of bills, could not give Knox a definite answer.

Elise Higgins of Planned Parenthood said in written testimony that the bill criminalizes discussions of sexuality in public schools, which would mean that young people would not receive needed education about reproductive health. She also said the bill singles out gay and lesbian youth for discrimination by including “homosexuality” in its definition of “sexual conduct” alongside acts such as masturbation and sexual intercourse.

The bill would give local communities a large amount of leeway to determine whether material was “harmful.” Phillip Cosby, state director of American Family Action, said communities should have this power, contending that a Mennonite community’s definition would differ from San Francisco.

Sherman Padgett, principal at North High, said he understands concerns about items being posted in school hallways without context, like the sex-ed poster that prompted the proposed bill. But those incidents are extremely rare, he said, and educators police themselves.

“None of us have a desire to challenge any family’s moral or religious or even political ideals. That’s their job. You raise your child the way you want them to be raised,” Padgett said. “But then you trust us to educate them and to kind of stay within the boundaries that are set.

“To me, this is a non-problem,” he added. “I think there’s an easier, more collaborative solution than for someone to create a law making it easier to prosecute educators. … Really it’s just about communicating, and we do that all the time.”

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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