Double Take: Senate bill stands in the way of education

Wes: Ten years ago Shawnee Mission East High School graduate Thomas Frank wrote a New York Times bestseller, “What’s The Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.” In it he posed a simple question: Why do so many Americans vote against their own economic and social interests?

Today, Frank seems like a prophet as our legislators, duly elected and sworn to faithfully discharge the duties of their offices, are giving Kansas exactly what it ordered off a bountiful conservative menu. Last week’s feast was passage of SB 56, which charges with a class B misdemeanor any teacher caught teaching stuff lawmakers or parents consider salacious. These criminals–that school counselor on your pew at church, the science teacher who spends his meager paycheck at your small business, the Health and PE instructor who married your daughter — could now face six months behind bars and a $1,000 fine. For teaching.

A core group of legislators in the Copper Tower of Pristine Virtue in Topeka has wanted to pass this law for a couple of years now, as part of a right-wing beef with public education dating back decades. Last year they got a terrific boost from a not terribly sensible teacher in Shawnee Mission, who as best I can figure it, printed a poster about ways people can express their sexual feelings.

Dr. Wes Crenshaw and Kyra Haas

The poster’s list of sexual expressions was far from exhaustive, particularly when considering what kids are up to these days. In fact, readers of Double Take may do a lot of yawning as they give the poster a glance (see our Facebook page via and wonder if something got lost in translation. Sure, it was unwise to post this list on a middle school classroom door, but trust me when I say even younger teens don’t need a poster to tell them people are having oral or anal sex. They have explicit online content just three or four mouse clicks away, leaving nothing to the imagination. Such material has a greater impact on Kansas teens than that teacher or any legislator. You don’t have to like that one bit, but you do have deal with it, just as that teacher was attempting to do, albeit ham-handedly.

Instead, the only impact this dumb law will have is to immediately shut down discussions of sexuality in Kansas classrooms. Any teacher wanting to avoid a Class-B witch hunt should heretofore refuse to teach any sex education curriculum. The risk is simply too great in a state that, as Joseph De Maistre put it so well, has gotten exactly the government it deserves.

Kyra: Last week my AP Literature and Composition class dug into Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” one of President Obama’s favorite books. At about the same time, the Kansas Senate passed SB 56. In addition to the points Wes makes, the bill removes schools from an exemption from an existing law that criminalizes the promotion of “material harmful to minors.”

Opponents of SB 56 fear its wording is not precise enough to keep the focus on sex education materials. I, for one, would be upset if my teachers diluted in-class discussions to avoid criminal prosecution. Given the breadth of this law, one would be wise to ask exactly what material is harmful to minors. It could be all sorts of things — sex education curriculum or J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” Last week, while debating a different bill, Wichita Republican Rep. Joseph Scapa spoke of another of Morrison’s books, “The Bluest Eye.” Time magazine has lauded Morrison as “The Great American Storyteller.” Scapa called her work “dirty” and “pornographic.”

Whether sex education curriculum should be limited at all is another issue. The less people know about sex, the more likely they are to become pregnant or get an STI. I don’t believe a teen should be deprived of valuable information and suffer the consequences because a permission slip went unsigned. We may be able to trust some parents to relay necessary information about sex to their children, but we can’t trust all of them, and kids who slip through the cracks will suffer the most.

Next week Wes and I will discuss HB 2199 and the pros and cons of opt-in sex education.

Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not: Successful Living with ADD & ADHD.” Learn about his writing and practice at Kyra Haas is a Free State High School senior who blogs at Send your confidential 200-word question to Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.