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Iowa Legislature advances bills on library books, disruptive students
By Caleb McCullough and Tom Barton - Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau
Mar. 29, 2023 5:05 pm
DES MOINES — Iowa House and Senate lawmakers advanced bills restricting certain instruction and library books in Iowa schools and allowing teachers to remove disruptive students from classrooms on Wednesday.
Senate File 496 passed out of a five-member subcommittee along party lines on Wednesday. The bill would put restrictions on Iowa schools when it comes to gender identity, sexual orientation and school libraries, and require schools to provide parents with course materials and the option to opt out of school instruction.
Among the bill’s provisions are:
• Schools could not provide instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through sixth grade
• Any books that detail or depict sex acts would be barred from school libraries.
• If any employee in a school district believes a student is expressing a gender identity different from the one assigned at birth, the district would need to inform the parent. If the district believes the student would be harmed by notifying parents, they could notify the Health and Human Services department instead.
• Schools would need written consent from parents to call a student by a different set of pronouns.
• Schools would need to list the books in the district’s library online and provide a process for parents to challenge curriculum and school library materials.
Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Hull, who chairs the House Education Committee, said he plans to amend the bill when the committee meets to consider it Thursday, but he did not say what the amendment would include.
The bill passed the Senate last week with only Republican support, 34-16.
A few of the bill’s provisions, like restricting library books and banning instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation, already were passed by the House under separate bills. If the bill passes the House with an amendment, the Senate would need to pass it again before it goes to Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk for a signature.
Education and LGBTQ rights advocates spoke in opposition to the bill during the subcommittee hearing Wednesday, bringing up oppositions they have leveled against similar bills throughout the session.
Damian Thompson, a lobbyist for Iowa Safe Schools, said requiring parental notification if any employee of the school district reasonably believes a student has expressed a gender identity different from their sex assigned at birth would create problems.
“We can talk about janitors, cafeteria workers, paraeducators, they’re not trained or have the correct tools to make that determination,” Thompson said.
A group of parents, many with the conservative activist group Moms for Liberty, supported the bill, saying it would give parents a greater say in their children’s education and keep instruction appropriate for all students.
“These are all common-sense things that should be happening anyway within our schools, but are not,” said Pam Gronau, a parent and Moms for Liberty member from Urbandale. “Parents have proven this to our legislators by providing countless examples from our schools.”
Opponents of the bill also argued the provisions dealing with library books, which would disqualify books if they included any in a list of sex acts defined in Iowa Code section 702.17, would ban a range of classic literature. But Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, denied that, saying the books the bill targets are explicit and obscene.
Republicans and supporters of efforts to restrict what is present in school libraries have pointed to books like “Gender Queer,” “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and the “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” as among the books they want to see inaccessible in school libraries.
Last week, Northwest Junior High in Coralville received false bomb threats that appear to be in connection with nationwide efforts to “cause disruption and panic as well as draw attention to the availability of the book ‘This Book is Gay’ in school libraries," Iowa City Community School District Superintendent Matt Degner said in an email to families and staff.
The district temporarily removed the book from its library shelves as it undergoes a reconsideration process, Degner said.
The school was referenced in a tweet by right-wing Twitter account Libs of TikTok, which said the school offers the book that “teaches kids about gay sex and encourages the use of sex apps.” A school district in New York was evacuated last week because of an emailed bomb threat that referenced the book.
Senate advances disruptive students bill
Senate lawmakers on Wednesday also advanced a House-passed bill that would set a statewide policy for disciplining disruptive and violent students in public K-12 schools.
House File 604 permits teachers to remove disruptive students from a classroom under the supervision of a school resource officer or lead administrator. It would require an in-school suspension and a counseling session after the first two incidents, but a third episode of violent or disruptive behavior would require the school to consider transferring the student to another class or learning environment, including a therapeutic classroom.
The bill also sets up a process for educators to report incidents of classroom violence and damage to school property to the State Ombudsman for investigation. It requires the principal or lead administrator to notify the parents or guardians of students responsible for the incident within 24 hours. It also requires notification of parents of guardians of student who are the victim or target of violence.
“This is a bill that ensures instances of violence in the classroom and the school are handled quickly and seriously,” said Sen. Lynn Evans, a Republican from Aurelia. She chaired the subcommittee that recommended approval by the full Senate Education Committee.
Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, questioned what would happen to students in cases where districts do not have a therapeutic classroom.
Evans said the bill remains a work in progress and will be amended on the floor, including addressing concerns about disciplining students for disability-related outburst and behavior that contradicts their individualized educational plan and federal guidance. Evans, too, said the bill will likely be amended to ensure schools have “developmentally appropriate” options for kids in kindergarten and early elementary grades rather than an immediate in-school suspension after an initial fight or disruption in class.
“This is not a complete bill,” Evans said, but said he believes it important to advance the bill to ensure a safe, conducive learning environment for all students.
According to the Iowa Department of Education, there were 63,667 instances of students being removed from classrooms last school year. Of those, about 47 percent involved violence, according to an analysis of the bill by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.
An October report from the Iowa Department of Education on student violence in Iowa classrooms, though, indicates there were nearly 2,000 assaults during the last school year, causing more than 1,700 injuries. The department also reported more than 1,100 incidents of property damage caused by students during the 2021-22 school year.
The bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee unanimously, making it eligible for debate and vote on the Senate floor