The controversy over a sex education poster at a Shawnee middle school erupted two years ago, but Kansas lawmakers were debating it again on Tuesday, sometimes in explicit terms.
The poster at Hocker Grove Middle School in 2014 helped spark a bill that would make it easier to prosecute teachers and school administrators for materials considered harmful to minors.
The bill passed in the Senate last year and was up for a House committee hearing Tuesday, which led to a discussion about the poster. The poster included such terms as “oral sex,” “anal sex” and “vaginal intercourse” and was titled “How do people express their sexual feelings?”
Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican and sponsor of the bill, told members of the House Judiciary Committee that teachers and administrators should not have exposed middle school students to such a poster, which included the words but not pictures. After complaints, the poster was removed.
“It’s very clear why this is offensive and why parents would not want their children confronted with this type of information,” she said. “This could have serious repercussions on a young child’s mind.”
Current law protects schools from such prosecution, but the proposed legislation would remove that provision. The bill would keep the protection from prosecution for universities, libraries and museums.
“Parents have a right to protect their children from material that’s harmful to minors,” Pilcher-Cook said.
But Pilcher-Cook faced adamant pushback from opponents, who argued that teachers could be prosecuted for teaching a variety of works in literature and art that might be considered offensive.
Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, questioned whether a picture of Michelangelo’s David with “an exposed and flaccid penis” would be objectionable under the proposed legislation. Or the works of J.D. Salinger and John Steinbeck, he said.
And Democratic Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita voiced concern that even teachers who could avoid conviction if they were prosecuted unreasonably would still bear the legal costs of defending themselves.
Tom Witt with the LGBT rights group Equality Kansas said his husband was a public school teacher and worried that he could be prosecuted for teaching books that have been banned or proposed for banning by activists. The list includes books that some find objectionable but are often in a school curriculum, he said.
“This bill is to strike fear in the hearts of teachers,” Witt said.
But Pilcher-Cook said such concerns were overblown. The bill allows for controversial material that has serious literary, scientific, educational, artistic or political value for minors.
“That is a big protection for teachers,” she said.
Under the bill, a violation would be a misdemeanor that could carry a fine or up to six months in jail.
About the poster, some Republican lawmakers said it was “troubling” and went far beyond what should be included for middle school students in sex education instruction.
Phillip Cosby with American Family Action of Kansas and Missouri supported the bill, saying minors need protection from exposure to material of a sexual nature at school just as they have protection outside of school.
“Everybody should exercise carefulness,” Cosby said.