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Republican lawmakers want to put Arizona teachers behind bars if they so much as recommend a book to students that is considered too “sexually explicit.”
On Thursday, Senate Republicans advanced a measure punishing teachers who “refer students to or use sexually explicit” materials with a class 5 felony, which carries with it a prison sentence as long as two years.
The only exception included in the bill is if the school has first obtained written parental consent, and the material has serious educational value for minors or possesses serious “literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”
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Critics warned that Senate Bill 1323 threatens to jeopardize the free speech of teachers and criminalize honest mistakes.
“What if a teacher has a book on their desk? Or what if they refer to a classic novel in conversation with a student or another teacher?” asked Sen. Anna Hernandez.
The Phoenix Democrat pointed out that the bill makes no distinction between kindergarten and high-school aged students, who are likely ready for more serious literature — and some of whom are legally adults.
She warned that the legislature’s relentless vilification of teachers will have a detrimental effect on a state already struggling to staff classrooms. A February survey from the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association found that as many as 25% of teaching positions across Arizona remain vacant, continuing a seven-year streak.
“If this type of legislation continues, there will be no one else left that’s going to be willing to teach our kids,” Hernandez said.
But Republican lawmakers shot back that it aims to protect children from harmful content.
“This bill actually protects children and their fundamental Christian values,” said Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale.
Kern added that teachers are being run out of the state due to intimidation, citing the recent decision by Washington Elementary School District not to renew a contract with Arizona Christian University, which trains young teachers, over an anti-LGBTQ “statement of faith” that all its students are required to sign and abide by.
“This bill is about stopping the sexualization of Arizona children,” said Sen. Jake Hoffman, who sponsored the measure. “There is nothing more important than protecting the innocence of our state’s kids.”
Hoffman, a Queen Creek Republican, claimed schools all over Arizona are “sexualizing” students, but didn’t specify where. His proposal builds on legislation he championed last year that was signed into law, which simply prohibited such materials from being used in classrooms unless parental permission was obtained first. It defines sexually explicit as a depiction of sexual conduct or as broadly as physical contact with a person’s clothed or unclothed body, including their genitals, buttocks or breasts.
Initially, last year’s measure would also have banned any references to the LGBTQ community, but that language was removed after widespread outcry. Still, critics worried it could lead to the removal of classic literature, and at least one district considered removing books with LGBTQ themes in response.
Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, a former teacher, worried that adding criminal penalties to already unclear legislation would worsen the censorship of important books, and could negatively impact educational quality.
“Teachers are going to have anxiety levels go up, and (they will) err on the side of extreme caution, which means that a whole lot of literature that probably doesn’t fall under that category — but teachers are afraid that it will — is not going to end up getting taught,” she said.
Sen. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, a former school board member, said that plenty of laws already exist to punish the exposure of minors to pornographic materials. Schools are required to enact firewall systems in their computers that protect students from encountering explicit material online, or risk forfeiting state funding.
And it’s a class 4 felony, which is punishable by up to three years in prison, to distribute anything that is harmful to minors, defined by state statute as something depicting nudity or sexual conduct that isn’t considered suitable for minors and has no serious literary, artistic, scientific or political value.
The measure was approved by the state Senate with only Republican support on a vote of 16-13, but is unlikely to make it past Gov. Katie Hobbs — a possibility that Hoffman denounced ahead of time, saying that if she vetoed the bill, it would mean she “will have aided in the sexualization of Arizona children.”
Hobbs has vowed to support only bipartisan legislation and has denounced other measures advanced by GOP lawmakers in their ongoing culture wars against schools as distractions from the real issues facing educators across the state.
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