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Kansas Teachers Who Distribute ‘Harmful’ Materials May Face Jail Time Under New Bill

Educators now face up to six months in jail for distributing explicit material, which advocates say could potentially block classical works of literature.

by Liz Fields
Feb 27 2015, 6:35pm

Photo via Getty

Under a new bill pushed through the Kansas Senate this week, teachers could soon be jailed for six months for distributing novels like Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye or sex-ed books depicting the human anatomy — if those works are deemed "harmful."

Kansas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 56 Wednesday, which removed provisions in a current statute that protects schoolteachers in the Midwestern state from prosecution — a move that some say would only come at the expense of children's education.

The bill would make it a criminal offense for teachers to "display," or "present or distribute" materials considered "harmful to minors," including "any description, exhibition, presentation or representation, in whatever form, of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse."

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The state already has a law in place that makes it illegal for adults to show "harmful" materials to minors — primarily to stop pornographic material being given to kids — but educators were exempt from the law. Until now.

Under the bill's broad guidelines, materials will be excluded from the curriculum if it both contains any explicit descriptions or representations and if any "reasonable person" believes the content lacks "serious literary, scientific, educational, artistic, or political value."

The definition of what exactly is reasonable, however is problematic, especially when it comes to controversial literature. On Monday, Republican Wichita Rep. Joseph Scapa, said he considered Nobel-winner Toni Morrison's novella The Bluest Eye — which explores themes of sexuality — to be pornographic.

"I think that's dirty," Scapa said, gesturing at an explicit passage in the novel. "I just don't think you want 10th-grade boys — in some classes they read this out loud — reading this out loud. It causes problems. It gives them ideas."

The bill was reportedly first drafted in response to parent complaints about a sex-ed poster displayed last year in Hocker Grove Middle School in Shawnee, Kansas titled: "How Do People Express Their Sexual Feelings?" The text-only flyer included a number of acts such as "hugging," "sexual fantasy," "grinding" and "anal sex."

"There was a list of sexual acts, some of which were highly offensive," said Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, SB 56 sponsor, according to KMBC-TV.

But education and civil rights advocates say the bill goes too far in seeking to prosecute teachers, which would essentially gag educators' ability to introduce contentious material to the classroom.

"If a teacher is afraid that they're going to be charged and convicted of a misdemeanor just for doing their job, they're going to be a lot less likely to share any information that someone somewhere might object to," said Micah Kubic, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, who testified against the bill.

Both the ACLU and Kansas National Education Association, which also testified against SB 56, said that the measure could potentially outlaw the dissemination of classics like Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye, and that parents have multiple avenues to raise objections to class materials through school administrators or boards, that don't involve the threat of prison time.

Senate Democrats had reportedly sought to object to the bill when it hit the floor for debate Tuesday, but a mix-up and a number of key empty seats in the chamber saw no Democrats speak against the bill, The Wichita Eagle reported.

A separate bill currently in the Kansas House is seeking that parents "opt-in" before their children are taught sex-ed, rather than have to "opt-out," as is currently the practice.

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Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields