The flap over a sex education poster at Hocker Grove Middle School in Shawnee seemingly ended a year ago.
The Shawnee Mission School District stopped using the poster listing various intimate and sexual acts — in words, not pictures — after a parent complained it was inappropriate for his daughter.
A year later, the middle school with nearly 800 students on Johnson Drive west of Interstate 35 is still on the minds of Kansas lawmakers.
Hocker Grove school figures in two major pieces of legislation that could change the way Kansas teaches sex education and how educational material is presented in the classroom.
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The flare-up over the poster has been used to propel one bill that would require parents to provide consent before their children can take sex education. Currently, some school districts only require parents to provide notification if they don’t want their children to take the courses.
Now the bill awaits approval by the full House. If it becomes law, Kansas would become just the fourth state in the country to require parents to opt in for sex education, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The school also loomed in a debate over another bill that would make it easier to prosecute teachers if they present children with material deemed harmful — legislation that some critics said is vulnerable to abuse and could threaten free speech.
That bill, which does not apply to colleges and universities, passed the Senate last week and now moves to the House for consideration.
Some Hocker Grove parents said the issue is dead and the state should move onto other issues, namely the state’s massive budget deficit and a legal battle over school funding.
“All of this has just been blown way out of proportion,” said Dave Wilson of Mission. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”
But some Republican lawmakers say parents need more voice in how their children should be educated and potentially protect them from sexually explicit material.
The Hocker Grove case, they say, demonstrates the need for parental oversight. The controversial poster was essentially a how-to list for expressing sexual feelings, ranging from kissing and hugging to oral and anal sex. Lawmakers pointed out that the poster was so graphic that television stations blurred the poster when reporting about the controversy.
They say parents need to be allowed to play an active role in deciding what their children are exposed to in the classroom.
Other lawmakers believe the measures are unnecessary. They say there are procedures in place for protecting children from sexually graphic material. They contend that lifting the legal protections for teachers could chill classroom instruction, leaving faculty open to prosecution for teaching human biology or the works of Toni Morrison or J.D. Salinger.
Republican state Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook of Shawnee has cited Hocker Grove in her backing of both bills. The school came up again last week when the Senate voted on the bill that would ease the ability to prosecute teachers over harmful material presented to minors.
In written testimony, Pilcher-Cook specifically said that the poster could have caused children irreparable harm. She questioned whether it was in the state’s interest to allow teachers to discuss specific sexual acts with children.
In a brief interview, Pilcher-Cook said she believes the Hocker Grove controversy showed that parents are becoming fed up with their lack of control over what their children are taught.
“It’s been building up over a period of time,” Pilcher-Cook said. “Parents have the right to be in charge of their children.”
Others believe the Hocker Grove controversy is being exploited, pointing out that the parent who first raised the issue last year, Mark Ellis, is now running for the Shawnee Mission School Board.
“It is one of those incidents that has shock value, so they’re using it over and over again,” said state Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat who serves on the House Education Committee. “It has been a focal point for rallying the group that wants to start censoring things in schools.”
Other opponents of the legislation say Hocker Grove gives conservative lawmakers an example they need, however isolated, to impose their moral values on public schools.
“It feeds the myth this happens everywhere,” said Mark Desetti, lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association. “They are taking one example — the only one they can find — and applying it to every school district, every classroom across the state.”
But some lawmakers have expressed concern that the poster demonstrated a casual attitude toward sex education and that district officials did not move more expeditiously to settle the matter after the parent complained.
“It wasn’t handled on a local level,” said state Rep. Willie Dove, a Bonner Springs Republican and a backer of the proposed “opt-in” requirement for sex education. “If it had been handled at the local level, we would have never seen it.”
School district officials emphasized in a statement that they stopped using the supplemental sex education material after receiving complaints from parents.
While district parents must take action to excuse their children from sex education, they are given the chance to review the material if they have concerns, the statement said.
Republican state Sen. Greg Smith of Overland Park said he doubts the Hocker Grove case is an isolated incident.
He said it was one situation that drew media attention, and he suspects that other incidents fly under the media radar.
“These things happen more than what shows up on a newscast,” he said. “It’s more than just this one incident.”
Smith, a teacher, supported the bill lifting the legal protection for teachers. He says criticisms of the proposal are exaggerated, pointing out that it details the type of material considered potentially harmful to minors.
For example, the bill says that harmful material would not include anything a “reasonable person” would believe has “serious literary, scientific, educational, artistic or political value for minors.”
While opponents of the bill argue that teachers won’t be able to show pictures of the statue of David or allow students to read “Huckleberry Finn,” those masterpieces still fit within the definition of what would be allowed under the bill, Smith said.
Opposition to the bill, he said, is predicated on “baseless fear and paranoia” to stir up a political base. “There’s no need for it.”
But Doug Bonney, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said the bill potentially makes something criminal that is protected by the First Amendment.
He said the law could be applied to anything from a National Geographic magazine to sex educational materials to information related to gender equality.
“If somebody is a real prude, they could find things that are in violation that other people may not,” Bonney said. “In the hands of a prosecutor bent on cracking down on whatever that prosecutor thinks is inappropriate for minors, this could be abused.”