Teaching: the new crime

Senate Bill 56, which aims to criminally charge teachers for using “harmful materials” in classrooms, would censor education and limit class discussions.

Hanna Kang, Opinion Editor

It is not much of overstatement to say that readers would assume, after reading several of my articles, that I wear a dog tag with the words “hardcore Christian conservative” around my neck. After all, my writing, in the very least, reflects my identification with the Republican Party, and the extensive influence my religious beliefs exert over my politics. Be that as it may, I am obliged to admit, quite reluctantly, that on this occasion, I cannot come to terms with the conservative right.

Earlier this year, a Republican senator in Kansas, Mary Pilcher-Cook, introduced Senate Bill 56 to the state house. According to The Courthouse News Service, the bill would “amend Kansas” public morals statute by deleting an exemption that protects K-12 public, private and parochial schoolteachers from being prosecuted for presenting material deemed harmful to minors.” It was introduced by Sen. Pilcher-Cook after complaints were raised about a poster in a middle school hallway titled, “How Do People Express Their Sexual Feelings?” Among the listed answers were “hugging,” “grinding” and “anal sex.”

Frankly, the poster was absolutely unfit for middle school students to encounter and it had to go, and the teacher who put it up needed to be severely disciplined, both of which took place. If I may throw in my two cents’ worth, sex is never a topic that students—especially if haven’t reached high school—should be so openly exposed to in a school setting. As a matter of fact, sex education should be something that is learned strictly in the home at the parent’s discretion. And that is exactly what SB 56, in a way, is advocating.

However, I am on the fence on this one, more or less. While I believe students, especially those of the younger generation, should be reasonably shielded from disturbing, explicit material, it is also my firm belief that a classroom should be a vital forum for open discussion and debate, where students can partake in a lively, dynamic interplay of ideas. To encourage this engagement, students must learn to delve into work that may be of discomfort, be it history, gender or race. Speaking from my own experience with in-class discussions, I must acknowledge I gain deeper insight and grow stronger, as cliché as it sounds, from discussions that are not watered down.

Should SB 56 be signed into law, teachers could be charged with a Class B misdemeanor and face up to six months in jail if caught teaching materials that contain depictions that a “reasonable person” would presume to be short of “serious literary, scientific, educational, artistic or political value for minors.” The bill essentially knocks aside the shield labeled “affirmative defense,” which exempts teachers from prosecution under an existing morals statute.

But who is to determine what is “harmful” or not? The bill would only open up the floodgates to relentless, unreasonable complaints that would impede effective learning. Fearful of spending many nights in jail, teachers would cram themselves into a tight box, self-censoring lesson plans to the point where nothing debatable will be put on the table. Students will never learn to challenge ideas, and will be wrongfully sheltered from pernicious materials that are prevalent in society, unable to develop the bulletproof vest to fight back.

Sen. Pilcher-Cook should have thought twice before introducing SB 56. She is perpetrating a dire transgression, by seeking to deplore free expression.