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A crime to teach?

Among the sideshows in the bizarre circus that is the Kansas Legislature, I find none more infuriating than a Shawnee legislator’s bill, driven by a book-burning mentality, to criminalize teaching.

Yes, you read that right. Teachers could be bona fide criminals if SB 56 becomes law, subject to fines up to $1,000 and six months in jail.

Which teachers? Any public, private, or parochial school teachers (counselors, too) who expose students to what the bill calls “harmful” material. Of course, in Kansas, in this bill, harmful means sexual in nature.

It’s not entirely new — Kansas has a law on the books detailing in terms both specific and vague what does and doesn’t count as criminal when it comes to inappropriate materials or information regarding sexuality and minors. That law specifically exempts school, college, and university personnel who present sexually oriented educational materials.

SB 56 strikes “public, private, or parochial school” from protected status. If it passes, sex education teachers may need to think twice before coming to work. So, too, should school librarians, English teachers who use “young adult” material, and others. Slip up, lose a $1,000 and get a vacation with three squares a day in the slammer.

Let’s bring this local by considering one example, USD 408, which will be moving sixth graders up to the middle school/high school complex. There’s a library there, with materials suitable for the ages of kids who’ve been attending.

Are those same materials suitable for sixth graders? Who decides? If a parent objects to a “young adult” book in the collection because it mentions something sexual, will it be time to slap cuffs on the librarian?

What’s always amused me about these discussions is that when I was a kid in the ’60s, none of us in my circle of friends waited for sixth grade to learn about sex! We got the information anywhere we could — surreptitiously leafing through the lingerie section of the Sears catalog, ogling cleverly concealed Playboy magazines, and, of course, hanging out around older guys. We knew it all, or thought we did, and we were cool.

The “harmful” incident that supposedly sparked the bill was one middle school teacher who put up one poster with some inappropriate terms. Other staff intervened, and the poster came down after a day. An error? Yes. A crime? No. At least, not yet.

When the kids who saw the poster went home after school, there’s a good chance they sat down in front of the TV, where they got their daily barrage of sexual images in sitcoms, dramas, and ads. Their parents were probably watching along with them, and likely weren’t shielding their eyes.

Or, they got on the Internet, and their parents probably weren’t with them — few adults supervise their kids when they’re net surfing. I think “everything imaginable” suffices to describe what they can and often find.

The legislature should stay out of this and leave it up to teachers, administrators, and school boards at the local level to deal with. It wasn’t a problem until some legislator made it one.

If parents have a complaint, they should talk with school staff, call a board member, and let them review and act on it. Our school folk know our community, they know our kids. It’s not so fashionable in some circles to say this, but: trust them. They want to do what’s right.

Don’t let the bozos in Topeka needlessly threaten them. If there’s a call that needs to be made, it should go to the school, not the cops.

— david colburn

Last modified Feb. 26, 2015

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