Teachers in Kansas May Soon Face Jail Time for Doing Their Job

Kansas_SB56Would an English teacher dare open up Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn  or J.D Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye if there was any possibility that a policeman could darken her classroom doorway clutching an arrest warrant? The charge: distributing “harmful materials to minors.”

Probably not, but where in the United States are educators accused of a crime merely for teaching literary classics? Nowhere yet, but if a state lawmaker in Kansas gets her way, educators there may soon be running afoul of the law unless they revise their curricula.

Meet State Senator Mary Pilcher-Cook, the lead sponsor of controversial legislation  moving through the Kansas Legislature that could lead to the prosecution of teachers who expose students to course materials that some may find harmful or offensive.

“Pornography and obscene materials are becoming more and more prevalent in our society,” says Pilcher-Cook. “It is all too common to hear of cases where children are not being protected from the harm it inflicts.”

But what does that have to do with educators?

Kansas State Senator Mary Pilcher-Cook

Kansas State Senator Mary Pilcher-Cook

It all started in 2013 when a parent heard about a sex education poster that was pinned up on a wall at a middle school in Johnson County. The poster contained information that could easily be considered inappropriate, so the parent filed a complaint with the district and the teacher was disciplined. But the parent wasn’t satisfied and Pilcher-Cook took up the cause by sponsoring Senate Bill 56.

What the bill essentially does is strip educators of  the “affirmative defense” protection that exempts them from prosecution under an existing morals statute. If SB 56 becomes law, only college and university professors would be protected by this clause, and public school teachers could be charged with a Class B Misdemeanor. This means up to six months of jail time or a fine up to $1,000.

And what exactly constitutes “harmful” content? According to the bill, such material contains a “description, exhibition, or presentation … in whatever form …of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadmomasochistic abuse.”

But then there’s this provision: material that any “reasonable person” believes has no “serious, literary, scientific, educational, artistic, or political value” could also be targeted.

A “reasonable” individual, presumably, is state Rep. Joseph Scapa, who told The Kansas City Star that a novel by Toni Morrison is “pornographic.”

It’s no wonder that teachers in Kansas might be deeply worried about what type of content they can and cannot show their students.

“I don’t know of a novel that I could teach that wouldn’t cause you to be offended in some way,” high school English teacher Michelle McClaine told WDAF-TV in Kansas City.

“If I’m a parent and I feel like my child was going through a Judy Blume book or even a Harry Potter book and looking at ‘inappropriate’ content, ostensibly the district attorney could choose to take that case and clap that teacher in irons,” explains Marcus Baltzell, spokesperson for the Kansas National Education Association (KNEA). “We live in a democracy where free exchange of ideas and discussion is encouraged and so this one incident threatens to put a blanket of censorship over the entire state.”

Students at Wichita East High School lobby lawmakers to reject SB5.

Students at Wichita East High School lobby lawmakers to reject SB 56.

KNEA is strongly opposed to SB 56 and has joined a coalition of organizations, including the Kansas American Civil Liberties Union, to lobby lawmakers and stop the measure in the House, where it it is now being considered after the senate approved the bill last week.

Also actively involved are students, who have taken to social media to rally opposition to SB 56. At Wichita East High School, students spent a recent lunch period calling, texting and e-mailing lawmakers urging them to vote against the bill.

Even if the House rejects the legislation, the impact of even considering such action is alarming, says Dr. Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas.

“A similar bill was introduced last year and there were some anecdotal reports about the effects in classrooms,” Kubick says. “But certainly if nothing else, even to repeatedly have legislation like this has a chilling effect itself. There’s jail time looming over [teachers’] heads. So long as someone somewhere regards [classroom materials] as offensive, it’s a threat.”

Despite widespread opposition – and national media coverage – the bill has a decent shot at becoming law. The legislative process is moving quickly and educators have been put in the position of addressing a problem  – pornographic materials blanketing the state’s schools – that doesn’t even exist.

Baltzell believes the real agenda has actually very little to do with protecting students’  morals. Pushing divisive, hot-button social issues distracts the media and public from the state’s fiscal crisis and the budget cuts that have decimated public education. And if educators are cast as defenders of indecent materials, all the better.

“Educators have been on the front line fighting Governor Brownback’s agenda,” Baltzell says. “The goal of a bill like SB 56 is to vilify public schools and discredit our teachers. Ultimately it’s about political payback.”

  • Pingback: Teachers in Kansas may soon face jail time for doing their job « Education Votes()

  • corrine madrid-nieto

    wow is this bill for real. it sound like 1984. what is this going to do to future childrens education

    • Philomena

      Wait. Could we still TEACH 1984?

      • Drew

        registering to upvote you sir and/or madam.

      • mousepotato

        Probably not. How would you explain how babies are born in that book if you can’t explain human reproduction in the classroom. We teach kids how to use condoms now, but we can’t have them read about why they might be needed?

    • momatad

      well the boys would be taught scriptural information, no math or sciences……the girls, well, they’d be at home learning to be good little drones.

    • Kellee Kramer Byrd

      I also registered here to upvote you. This trend in education is so disturbing. How will the next generation ever hope to be competitive on a world stage when they have so many powerful people willing to slash funding and rewrite history to their liking?

  • Lee Merrick

    This is terrifying.

  • Xochipilli

    Mary Pilcher-Cook needs to study L.A. Here the United Teachers L.A. (both NEA and AFT affiliated) has been co-opted by money (fair-share or agency fee) to collude with the school district to rid them of veteran teachers. They can accuse teachers of anything and the teacher can then be fired. Since UTLA canceled group legal insurance the teacher cannot fight back unless he/she has #50,000 to fight the charges.

    • Dan THM

      The school board should be picking the curriculum not the teachers. Then the board has the liability for the subject matter. The leniature has it right

      • Robin

        How many members of school boards are certified to be teaching? I wouldn’t want them choosing the curriculum for our schools.

      • Pam

        Then your school board members must all be experts in all subjects that are taught at all levels? They know each of these works inside and out and can make qualified judgments about their worth? Not sure that is the role of the school board. School boards set policy, not curriculum.

      • kira

        My curriculum has slight variations depending on who my students are, where their interests lie, and what engages them. A part of my job is assessment and that is not only to determine what they know, but also to assist me in planning. How would the school board be affective at determining what comes next for individual classes and individual students?

        • mr jobangles

          “Affect” is a verb and “affective” is not a word. “Effect” is a noun and “effective” is the adjective you need to use.

      • Leeming

        What an absurd contention. Mark Twain got it right long ago when he wrote “First God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.” Nothing I’ve seen or heard suggests any different.

      • Kit Eakle

        NOPE, Dan — neither “the lintier” NOR the legislature has it right! School Boards are here today and gone tomorrow. Teachers have to live with their whims. Teachers are at least supposed to be educated in their field, School Board members are NOT. Such a system would ruin education as we know it.

  • 4piepieces
  • Marc Thomson

    What about all those “reasonable” parents who find no no “serious, literary, scientific, educational, artistic, or political value”to the Bible?

  • backekuchen

    The Song of Solomon from the Bible would certainly be not allowed. There are some other stories that would fall under the censor’s hammer.

  • Pingback: OTR Links 03/09/2015 | doug — off the record()

  • Patricia Fear

    Why hire teachers at all? They attend university for a minimum of 5 years, become experts in their fields, and then some ignoramus feels he or she knows more than they do about their field of expertise. We can’t allow our students to be deprived of an education because of some extremist right-winger’s prejudice.

  • Lisa

    California has been banning classics/books for years. http://ww2.kqed.org/news/09/24/2014/Banned_Books_California

  • Shirley Crowfoot

    Perhaps if some teachers across the country had not made it clear that they lacked common sense judgement in the materials they assigned, this would not be an issue. I think MOST teachers have some sense of propriety, but I must say that that thought has been challenged by some the the reading material and bulletin board displays I saw in some classrooms while I was subbing after having retired.
    Making a law, which as stated, seems pretty broad and open to interpretation is, IMO, not the answer to the problem. I do think that parents must be vigilante and teachers who are obviously lacking in good judgement should be strongly admonished.
    Did inappropriate material exist “way back when”? Of course, but the society had a pretty ubiquitous idea of what was and what was not appropriate. Popular culture reflects the depths to which morality has sunk. Must our classrooms wade through the muck, as well?

    • borme

      Sure….but did you read the article? The teacher that displayed the poster was punished (and BTW, the poster only contained words, no pictures, descriptions, or obscene words). Why must a law that is so vague and punitive be passed? I’m a teacher, and I’m also a parent. I teach US History. Any study of the 60s counterculture could theoretically be determined as offensive if I happen to mention “free love”. Why should a parent get to dictate whether or not I should face jail, or have my career ended, over something that was part of our history (for good or bad)?

      • Shirley Crowfoot

        Evidently, you didn’t read my comment completely. Start at “Making a law”. And where did you get the ideal that the poster contained no pictures. That was never stated, only that it contained information that could be considered inappropriate. I too was a teacher for over 30 years and the parent of 6 children. My specialty was Brit Lit so LOTS of poetry that spanned several centuries was read, examined, and enjoyed. The difference was that the writers had a command of language that allowed them to express themselves without vulgar, coarse vernacular. Much of what is read in classrooms today is barely a step above salacious pandering to what someone has determined is necessary to make it appealing to today’s students. My students were required to write their own sonnets and ballads and I NEVER had to reproach anyone for inappropriate language. Why? Because they knew the boundaries of propriety. After I retired, I subbed for 14 years and am sorry to say that I saw many instances of student writing that was rife with obscenities. Why? Because they knew the teachers for whom they were writing would accept it.
        I harken back to a Creative Writing professor I had who told us that profanity was the underdeveloped mind trying to express itself.

        • borme

          I have seen the actual poster…..not hard to find. It was all words. Like I said, it wasn’t classroom appropriate, but hardly something for which someone should be jailed/fined.

          • Kellee Kramer Byrd

            Where can one see the actual poster? I’m very interested to see what started all this.

  • Don

    Can you saw Heil Hitler? When do we start burning books?

  • Chuck

    So can a student be allowed to read Cosmopolitan Magazine. A teacher isn’t lecturing the material, but I know students who read that in a school. Does that mean as teachers, we allow our students to read such material?

  • Miriam Lupfer Reed

    I can’t think of any book that I studied in public school over 40 years ago the “value” of which could not be the subject of questions. Even Shakespeare, the Bible, all the “classics” and more modern literature can be held to an arbitrary standard that questions the books’ value. What is wrong with the Kansas legislature and the Pandora that wants to open this box of insanity?

  • jenne

    This sickens me, I read Song of Solomon in the 10th grade as an honors student. It’s not a perfect book the “pornography” in it is relative to the plot not gratuitous.
    If you start censoring everything your child reads or does then how does that child become a well rounded, adjusted adult?

    • Donald Bradbury

      On the internet and back alleys, that is where. That is why teaching them in a good environment is so important. If kids want to know, they will find out. Any parent that thinks different probably chains them to the house.

  • Izaak

    As our government imposes ever more legislation to keep people from being offended, this is one more drop in the bucket. It’s no different than labeling some speech as hate speech, or some crimes hate crimes. This is the next logical step. Either everyone will have to deal with getting offended, or nobody will. If I get offended when I hear “dude” does that give me the right to have the term criminalized?

    • borme

      And this is a law being crafted and passed by “small government” conservatives.

  • streakyd

    Question… when a teacher sexually molests a student, who do the KNEA lawyers defend? Answer that, and then try to tell me that KNEA cares about student well-being. Cue the epic butthurt.

  • streakyd

    Funny, the website administrator(s), the very group accusing others of censoring information, censored my question. So I’ll ask again: “When a teacher sexually abuses a student, who do the KNEA lawyers defend?” Answer that, and then try to tell me that KNEA cares about student well-being.

    • Kit Eakle

      The KNEA or ANY teacher’s organization would have NO STANDING in a court of law to bring charges against individual teachers. Our legal system REQUIRES advocacy for BOTH sides in a trial, and the KNEA or any other teachers union ONLY has right, they have an OBLIGATION to defend a teacher accused of sexual, just like ANY defense lawyer. That CERTAINLY doesn’t mean KNEA or any other teachers organization SUPPORTS child abuse or that they don’t care about student well-being. Quite the contrary. BUT in a democratic society ALL accused have the right to defend themselves, and the teachers association MUST support their accused teacher members until they are PROVEN guilty in a court of law. THAT is what happens in a democracy. You should not

      • streakyd

        KNEA represents teacher interests. Sometimes, those interests align with student interests. Sometimes they do not. But it’s dishonest to think that KNEA cares about students directly. It may be good PR, but students don’t pay the dues.

        Read the article above again. No concern for the children.

        • hunter

          What aspect of this topic would involve harming or undermining/poorly educating our students? The whole point is trying to expand their knowledge base and improve their knowledge of literature (and other subjects) and ways of critiqueing same…..Or more precisely trying to keep teachers who are doing that in the classroom from the evil silliness of fools and incompetents who want to restrict knowledge to the simple, though wrong, ideas/ideals of religion/righteousness they were indoctrinated with and the eternal never-ever badness of America they believe without qualm or ability to learn about. .

      • streakyd

        Thanks for proving my point.

    • D Lang

      That would be a criminal offense so a teacher wouldn’t be protected by NEA. NEA can’t protect any teacher from illegal activity so your straw man argument is ridiculous.

      • streakyd

        Not quite. Do you realize the entire article above is a strawman argument? Search for the words “might,” “could,” or “may.” Then search for “will” or “would.”

    • David MacEachen

      You sound like you’re awfully stupid, streakyd. Sorry about that. Ooo…there’s a book. Better burn it.

      • streakyd

        I submit to the mighty David MacEachen, whose debate skills are unparalleled.

        • borme

          What you mentioned has nothing to do with this law. People accused of ANY crime, per the US Constitution, have the right to counsel, and are innocent until proven guilty- even ones that are accused of sexual assault.

    • hunter

      You do, I hope, realize that that is not the topic of this thread. I believe you should be posting this in legal defense of teachers or similar. It is not remotely germane to this area. Good try at diversion though!!!

  • Pingback: United Faculty of Florida()

  • Maria Baldrich

    Nothing surprises me today, but taking away the basic right for individuals to freely express their ideas is ridiculous and the fact that they are even considering is ludacris. We can’t teach with our hands tied behind our backs and believe when I say, “your child is exposed to more on their own computers at home than at school”. Many children lack adult supervision when they are home.

  • Danno

    Sounds like educator accountability to me. It is done in every job, except in education. Why are teachers so worried about being held accountable. Do your job, keep your bias out, and keep your job. Really that simple.

    • borme

      There’s accountability for teachers as well. What I take issue with is being charged with a criminal offense for mentioning “free love” during a unit on the 60s Counterculture or showing a documentary on WWII or Vietnam that contains a curse word from a veteran- which is what this law will lead to. I know a couple of parents of JH kids (who I don’t have quite yet) that would file a complaint over something this mundane- especially if I anger them some other way- such as their son/daughter earning a grade that they don’t like.

  • MrK

    There have been many great teachers who’ve been chastized by oblivious parents for less-than-significant reasons. This bill now empowers that crazy parent. In addition, it makes our best and brightest even less inclined to pursue one of society’s most important yet most strenuous professions.

  • Concerned

    I’ve always found it interesting that conservatives do not favor regulation except in education. Washing hands in the food industry should be left up to the individual business, but introducing conflicting ideas to create a well-rounded, critical thinkers definitely should be put to an end.

    • Proud Teacher

      Because teaching free thinking and to examine both side of a topic could lead to individuals who think for themselves and vote out crappy politicians such as those supporting this legislation.

    • LiveWire

      When it comes down to it, giving children more information than churches are willing to give them usually makes them turn into «gasp!» Democrats!

  • Concerned Teacher

    I wouldn’t be able to teach Anatomy and Physiology — too many naked pictures.

    • hunter

      and, skeletons and organs clearly indicate voodoo influence and/or devil worship!!!!!

  • David MacEachen

    Once again…Kansas leading the march…backwards. Give that state a wide berth.

    • LiveWire

      There’s a good reason they call it a fly-over state…

  • Jay

    Way to go Kansas. You must be striving for the record for the most ill-conceived education legislation in the Union. If I taught in Kansas, I would quit. I am sure the law will be vague as to what constitutes obscene materials.

    • James Dean

      Winnie the Poo , offends me dammmmit !!!

  • mousepotato

    When will we recognize that education by government fiat is not good for anyone. We are now educating our children not to think but to take standardized tests. I know that there is objectionable language, by today’s standards, such as Twain’s use of the “N” word, but if we don’t learn from our history we will, as we have seen recently, be doomed to repeat it. Censorship on any level is never good. Require a parent opt out if there is material that is objectionable to the family with a different reading list, but let’s not make our children’s curriculum more pablum, unless, of course, we want a citizenry that has to be led around by the nose.

  • James Dean

    what a fkn idiot !!!! everything is offensive to everybody these days . that’s what you have created … morons . A society where saying hello wrong hurts your little feelings and is punishable by losing your job … ya know what Piltcher … you are an un informed idiot … go away .

  • James Dean

    here is what this idiot congressette wants : a school system run by the students made only for feeding them and catering to their every need except for learning …. you nazi freaks make me want to puke !!!

  • kmcphx

    What year is this? I can remember all us hippie types making fun of books being banned back in the late 60s and early 70’s. Back then the “book-banners” wanted to ban books that had “no redeeming social value.” We’ve certainly come a long way in the last half century.

  • imacfrog

    I guess showing students piece of art work from the Renaissance in a history class will be forbidden unless they are all censored! Probably all for the best because moral deviants like Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello should be remembered as Mutant Ninja Turtles not as artists of the first order!

  • imacfrog

    I guess the great artworks of the Renaissance will be forbidden to be shown in a history or art class unless they are censored. Then again deviants like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello should be remembered as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles not as great artists!

  • Joanne Green

    University professors in many states, including Georgia are teaching immoral and pornographic materials to senior students who are to teach this subject- k-12. I have just spent three years in three separate universities.

  • LiveWire

    It keeps coming back,
    Rearing its ugly damned head,
    Time and time again.

  • Ricardo Garcia

    Is it just my opinion, or are state governments and school districts eliminating imaginative literature and fiction from English classes? I feel I am required to teach more scientific, historical, and informational texts than fiction. We study literature to understand that we are not alone in our plights and to spark critical thinking. Historical, scientific, and informational texts have their place in the education of children, but if we only give them facts, we “zombify” them into thinking that the information we give them is absolute truth and there’s no other way.

  • Andrew Kent Jaussi

    And you wonder why parents are pulling their children out of public education and home schooling them. You all say that Kansas has gone backwards, I say that Kansas has recognized that our moral values have become so corrupted that now we call good evil and evil good. Just a fulfillment of prophecy. What’s next?

  • Ron04

    You know where the blame for this lies? RIGHT IN YOUR OWN LAP !

    If teachers unions hadn’t grown to the out of control leftist controlled monsters they are today – if they actually CARED about students – then common sense would still rule the classroom and the school board. But rank and file UNION teachers rise to be bargaining unit represented UNION administrators with a large dose of Peter Principle thrown in for good measure. What does this equation produce? Zero tolerance policies that penalize kindergartners for going “POW!” while pointing their fingers in the shape of a gun, trans-gendered bathrooms, and a litany of other topics wholly inappropriate for the elementary level.

    The lack of common sense is what leads to this government over reach in an attempt to correct it. For the record I’m not in favor of this or any similar type of legislation. But I am LESS in favor of the idiot teacher that put up the poster that started it all, and I am rabidly against the teachers union who supports her/him.