New Kansas Law Would Make It a Crime to Teach Sex Ed, Classical Art, and Shakespeare

The Republican-controlled state House of Representatives will take up a bill that would put teachers in jail for showing kids "harmful material" in class.

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Mar 3 2015, 6:32pm

Photo by Lansing Library via Flickr

Last year, a 13-year-old at the Shawnee Mission Middle School in Prairie Village, Kansas, wandered past a sex-ed poster that listed ways that people showed affection. Among them were "kissing," "sexual fantasy," and "anal sex." Outrage ensued after the girl told her mom, and ultimately a state senator named Mary Pilcher-Cook vowed to never let another pre-teen be harmed by a poster.

Soon, the Kansas state House of Representatives will decide whether teachers who show their students objectionable material should be charged with a crime, which means sex ed will be nearly impossible to teach and classical art as well as other curriculum staples will be effectively banned. Although these book-banning-type bills come up from time to time in square-shaped states where conservatives live in fear of Harry Potter and think AP US History is an anti-American conspiracy, Senate Bill 56 actually stands the chance of passing. On February 25, the Kansas Senate approved it 24 to 16. As of right now, it's not on the House's schedule, but it could pop up any day.

If it becomes law, Senate Bill 56 will eliminate a clause that exempted K-12 teachers from a public-morals law, subjecting them to jail time if they are found guilty of having shown "harmful material" to minors in class. A complaint from a parent about a film, novel, or even a picture of Michelangelo's David could put an educator in the slammer for up to six months, effectively ending their career.

"Nobody's out there putting pornography in front of kids," said Marcus Baltzell, the communications director at the Kansas National Education Association. "We keep telling people this is a solution in search of a problem."

So what qualifies as "harmful material," you ask? Oddly, there's a whole section of the bill that seems to be dedicated to 50 Shades of Grey, or, as the bill's language puts it, "flagellation or torture by or upon a person clad in undergarments, in a mask or bizarre costume or in the condition of being fettered, bound, or otherwise physically restrained on the part of one so clothed."

And course, any material that depicts masturbation or homosexuality is immediately off the table. However, Baltzell brings up other even more benign examples, like a Judy Blume book that mentions menstruation or wet dreams. He also says teachers could be liable if a kid picks a "harmful" book up herself as part of an independent reading assignment.

The Kansas House, like the state Senate, is controlled by Republicans. The governor's office did not return VICE's request for comment, so it's hard to say whether or not Republican Governor Sam Brownback would sign the bill.

"We live in a democracy and believe the free exchange of ideas is crucial to critical thinking," Baltzell said, adding that the biggest problem about the bill is that the language is so broad. "And there's no definition of what is harmful. You may think Harry Potter is completely reasonable or the Teletubbies, but if one parent finds something objectionable, a teacher is vulnerable to criminal prosecution."

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