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DES MOINES — Concerns about what some consider to be obscene material in school libraries and curriculum clashed with concerns about censorship and for educators who feel under attack by some policymakers during a legislative hearing Thursday at the Iowa Capitol.
The hearing was about Senate File 2198, which would enable parents to start legal proceedings against schools or educators who distribute books or materials the parents deem obscene.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Jake Chapman, from Adel, and supported at Thursday’s hearing by Sens. Brad Zaun from Urbandale and Jason Schultz from Schleswig. All are Republicans.
Chapman said the legislation is necessary because parents do not have other recourse when school districts decline to remove books or other materials those parents consider obscene.
“Parents are cut totally out of this equation. They have no other redress. That’s why this bill is necessary,” Chapman said.
Most districts have a process for parents to raise concerns about materials in libraries or classrooms. Some parents who testified said they raised concerns about some books, but their district decided against removing them. Some of the books contain isolated passages that describe or draw images that show sexual acts, including incest. Typically, the books have larger themes that have little or nothing to do with the passages.
Iowa law says that in order to meet the definition of “obscene material,” the material, when taken as a whole, must lack “serious literary, scientific, political or artistic value.”
Complaints generally have revolved around books that feature LGBTQ characters or were written by LGBTQ authors, or involve non-white characters or authors. Chapman and some of the individuals who spoke in support of the bill Thursday showed images and read passages from books they deem offensive.
“This is pornography in our schools. This is sexually explicit material,” Chapman said.
Speakers who opposed the bill pointed to the process already in place in schools, and said teachers, administrators and librarians should be trusted to do their jobs.
“It’s unfortunate that in some cases folks feel that process has not worked properly, and that’s something we can do a better job informing our locally elected officials how to do that,” said Emily Piper, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards. “Our school boards are not knowingly or willingly trying to inflict pornographic material on our students. We are trying to do the job to provide a quality education.”
Melissa Petersen, a lobbyist for the Iowa State Education Association, the largest statewide public teachers union, said teachers feel under attack by Republican lawmakers who, in addition to this bill, have proposed a requirement that all classrooms feature cameras to livestream instruction so parents can watch their student’s teacher at work. That bill was pulled from the legislative process earlier this week.
“What I find terribly challenging about this conversation is the presumption … that there are public education professionals that are looking to harm students,” Petersen said. “We seem to be going out of our way to threaten our public education professionals.”
Chapman and Zaun said they believe the majority of Iowa teachers are good. Chapman decried media coverage of his speech on the Legislature’s opening day, where he said, “Some teachers are disguising sexually obscene material as desired subject matter and profess it has artistic and literary value.”
“I can assure you, 99 percent of teachers in the state of Iowa are great teachers,” Zaun said, noting his wife is a former teacher in Des Moines public schools. “This is not about the teachers. This is about the parents.”
With approval from Zaun and Schultz, the bill is eligible for consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Zaun chairs. But its long-term prospects are uncertain.
Jack Whitver, the Senate Republican majority leader from Ankeny, said previously he does not feel increased criminal penalties for educators is the way to address parents’ concerns. Pat Grassley, the Republican House speaker from New Hartford, said something similar last Friday.
Grassley said House Republicans are focusing on transparency.
“We want to make sure there is transparency in our children’s education, and making sure the parents have involvement,” he said. “But I don’t think that the criminal penalty piece is something that the House is going to … that’s not going to be part of our conversation.”
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