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'Harmful Materials' Bill Targeting Teacher Protections Passes Kan. Senate

A Kansas bill that would remove legal protections for teachers who provide minors with "harmful materials" passed the state Senate on Wednesday, 26-14.

Opponents of the bill have argued that it could severely restrict teachers' autonomy and discretion, possibly allowing educators to be punished for assigning works of classic literature that involve mature themes.

The bill, introduced by Republican Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, is intended to protect students from "pornography and obscene materials." However, it is unclear how the designation "harmful to minors" will be applied and who will determine what materials are acceptable.

While Pilcher-Cook scoffed at the idea that teachers could be prosecuted for teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, questions quickly emerged in connection with other oft-taught books.

In a separate discussion on the Common Core State Standards this week, another Kansas Republican, Sen. Joseph Scapa, said that standards' recommended reading lists are "full of pornography." He singled out Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye, though he hasn't read it, explaining, "I just don't think you want 10th grade boys ... reading this out loud. It causes problems. It gives them ideas."

Though a similar bill "harmful materials" bill stalled in the Senate last year, The Wichita Eagle reports that the current bill moved to a vote without discussion on Tuesday in part due to disorganization among Senate Democrats. "Someone just dropped the ball," said Democratic Sen. David Haley.

The bill now moves to the state's House of Representatives, which is adjourned until next week; while its prospects there is uncertain, the House has 97 Republican members to just 28 Democrats, which suggests that the measure may have some support.

The Kansas NEA has criticized the bill, as well as Democrats' failure to take action. "We're going to self-censor to the point where nothing controversial is ever put before kids," said Mark Desetti, legislative director for the Kansas NEA, in a statement to The Wichita Eagle.

Educators around the state have also voiced their opposition to the bill. In an article in The Wichita Eagle this week, art teacher Liesl Wright wrote to note that the nude drawings she sometimes shows students could potentially open her to prosecution, saying, "It's a very frightening thought for art and science teachers in particular."

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