Iowa senators push felony charges for school employees who allow ‘obscene’ books

Democrats say it’s a GOP tack to gain election year support

An Iowa Senate proposal to bring criminal charges against school librarians and teachers who disseminate books the bill’s authors consider to be obscene is among the social issues in schools that legislators are expected to address this session.

Senate President Jake Chapman, a Republican from Adel, and Sen. Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee, have said they support bringing the charges where they feel a violation has occurred. Chapman has said he intends to propose legislation that would create a new felony offense for dissemination of obscene material to a minor.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, a Republican from Ankeny, said he expects a very broad conversation about K-12 education, including the issues Chapman and Zaun will bring to the front, when the Iowa Legislature begins is 2022 session this week.

Whitver said he did not know what the end result would be.

“I haven't seen any legislation that they may be working on or what that would look like, but over the last two years there has been an increased emphasis on education and parental choice and parental rights within education in the state of Iowa,” Whitver said.

Some of the passages and images in school library books are disturbing, Whitver asserted, and parents have raised issues.

In Urbandale, for instance, a parent complained about five books that have been the topics of debate in districts nationwide, the Des Moines Register reported — "All Boys Aren't Blue" by George Johnson, "Gender Queer" by Maia Kabobe, "Lawn Boy" by Jonathan Evison, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie and "Hey, Kiddo" by Jarrett Krosoczka. All of the books are available at the high-school level, the Register reported, and two of them are available at the middle-school level.

Whitver said it’s his understanding schools have mechanisms in place to address such parental concerns, but the Legislature would likely start with seeing if that process is in place statewide and how it is working — then go from there.

“I think we feel very strongly obviously, that, you know, pornography shouldn't be distributed amongst a school,” said Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, a Republican from New Hartford. “However, how do we do that in a way in which, you know, the local school boards are the ones that are making sure that it's being addressed? I don't necessarily think it's through putting felonies or any of these kinds of things on there.”

Rep. Dustin D. Hite, the Republican chair of the House Education Committee, said he also anticipates conversations among lawmakers about the topic, including the performance of the existing review process. Any work will have to take First Amendment protections into account, said Hite, of New Sharon.

“When you discuss libraries and that sort of stuff, there’s a big interplay with the First Amendment,” Hite said.

Democratic leaders in both chambers were critical of lawmakers taking a hand in the issue and argued there is a process in place to address concerns about books or other materials.

“The last thing that we need is to pour the gasoline of partisan politics on public education,” Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, of Coralville, said. “And that’s what Republicans are doing.”

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, of Windsor Heights, said the legislature’s job is to create an environment in which Iowa can grow and thrive.

“And by taking away — by opening the door to taking away books and jailing teachers for content in the classroom — I don’t think that’s the direction we need to be going," Konfrst said.

The process that is in place to review materials is adequate, said Rep. Sharon Steckman, the senior Democrat on the House Education Committee.

Many of the books recently questioned are Amazon bestsellers, or come highly recommended or have received accolades, said Steckman, of Mason City.

“I’m not promoting porn for our kids, of course, I would never do that, but I do think we need to leave it the way it has been,” Steckman said.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, the senior Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, said he is anticipating action on this topic.

“It’s an election year, it’s a culture war issue, and it’s the kind of thing that they want to have to gin up their base,” said Quirmbach, of Ames.

The School Administrators of Iowa is anticipating some kind of legislation introduced on the issue, said Roark Horn, the organization’s executive director.

“It might be more broad regarding parental access to school curriculum and increased ability to challenge it rather than targeted to certain books,” Horn said.

Emily Piper, who lobbies for the Iowa Association of School Boards, said she was not aware of any legislation that would ban specific books, but there has been discussion about what process is used and said the association educating lawmakers about it.

There’s already a process in place and it’s been utilized in Central Iowa, where decisions have been made to either remove books or to keep them as instructional materials, Piper said.

Diversity and mask mandates

Those interviewed also were asked about potential action this sessions to follow up on House File 802, which was adopted last year to govern racism, diversity and inclusion efforts, as well as the law also enacted last year that prohibited local school boards from enacting mandates for students and school employees to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

HF802 deals with mandatory staff training at K-12 and post secondary schools that prohibits, among other things, any teaching that includes “stereotyping, scapegoating, or prejudice toward others on the basis of demographic group membership or identity.” The law also states that the training cannot indicate that “that the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.”

Whitver said lawmakers are still watching to see if the law is performing as it was intended.

“So that like a lot of issues in the Legislature, we're just going to wait and see what's happening throughout the state,” Whitver said.

Piper said the association of school boards was still helping school boards and districts navigate the legislation so they understand how it applies to them and what they can do.

She would like legislators to require the state Department of Education to provide a list of resources, curriculum and materials that meet the intent of the law.

In October, a federal judge placed a stay on an Iowa law that prohibited locally elected school boards from enacting a mask mandate in their schools. The judge is considering a suit by parents who assert the ban violates federal law by discriminating against students with disabilities who are at a higher risk of COVID-19 complications.

The state is appealing the stay to the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in Omaha, but the court has not made a ruling. With the stay still in place, many school districts have enacted their own mask mandates.

Legislative leaders said they do not expect more action on school mask mandates while the case is pending.

Erin Murphy of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.