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House committee looks to enforce age-appropriate books, school discipline

The entrance to the Iowa House chamber.
Madeleine Charis King
IPR file
Disruptive students could be permanently removed from a classroom, and schools would have to be sure their curriculum is age-appropriate under bills passed out of an Iowa House committee.

A bill advanced in the Iowa House (HSB 219) this week says instruction in Iowa schools must be “age-appropriate,” which it defines to exclude obscene materials or anything that describes a sex act or sexual activity as spelled out in Iowa law.

The bill is written to apply broadly across school curriculum — the lone exception is sex ed — but Rep. Brook Boden, R-Indianola said it comes in response to recent hearings with parents who have tried unsuccessfully to remove books with sexual content from their local schools.

In one of the hearings held last month by the House Government Oversight Committee, members of the conservative parents group Moms for Liberty described their efforts to remove or restrict books such as Gender Queer, All Boys Aren’t Blue and Lawn Boy from school libraries because they include graphic sex scenes. Those same books have been the subject of organized book challenges nationwide.

Boden said introducing a new rule for age-appropriateness resets the standard for schools to work from.

“This really kind of describes in detail what they’re going to be looking for,” Boden said in a subcommittee hearing Wednesday. “It helps the administration, I believe. It helps the librarian, it helps the teachers and it helps the children and the parents just having that clear definition.”

Opponents of the bill said teachers and librarians already choose books with a student’s age in mind and said using the definition of a sex act to define what’s appropriate could unintentionally remove classic books from library shelves.

Rep. Sue Cahill, D-Marshalltown, said it might also stop older students from reading books that would make them aware of topics such as sexual assault or human trafficking.

“Any book that talks about teen pregnancy. Any book that talks about molestation or sexual abuse. And I think that these are some topics that are age appropriate for students in our high school level,” Cahill said.

Members of Moms for Liberty told the subcommittee the proposal doesn’t go far enough to punish schools where books are found that are not age-appropriate under the bill’s definition.

Amber Williams of Urbandale brought up another House Oversight hearing where school officials defended their decisions to keep books that were challenged as obscene because obscenity law requires a book to be judged as a whole, not on its most graphic passages.

“Essentially what we heard was that it will be nearly impossible to find a book which they would remove from the school library due to the definition of obscenity given in Iowa code 728,” Williams said. “It proved that the process is flawed and it does not work. I’m concerned this bill isn’t a solution.”

The bill was passed by the Education Committee Wednesday making it eligible for debate by the full House.

Removing ‘disruptive’ students

A student could be permanently removed from a classroom under another bill passed by the House Education Committee. The measure (HSB 206) is meant to respond to cases where student behavior becomes violent toward a teacher, or forces everyone else to clear the room.

The plan includes a three-step discipline process for a child that must be taken out of class for what the bill calls disruptive behavior.

The first removal prompts an in-school suspension and a meeting with a school counselor. The second time is followed by another meeting and a five-day suspension. If there is a third removal within a year, the student would be expelled from that class.

Students do sometimes cause bruises, broken bones or worse, said Melissa Peterson of the Iowa State Education Association, but one problem with removing a student is figuring out where they go next.

“We have students, let’s say six or seven-years-old, in our system right now who would be at that third step within the first four weeks of school,” Peterson told a House subcommittee. “And what are we doing then with that student for the rest of their life?”

Some school leaders may be allowing a student to repeatedly disrupt a class out of mismanagement, Peterson said, but in other cases there may be no resources available to provide another option.

In 2020, the legislature approved grant funding to create therapeutic classrooms as an alternative placement for students with behavioral challenges, but school advocates told lawmakers that access around the state is spotty because it’s hard to find ongoing staffing and funding.

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Hull, said the discipline proposal comes from talking with current and former educators frustrated with schools failing to respond to teachers put in harm’s way.

“They believe that there were things being swept under the rug that were happening at school and they didn’t have an avenue to bring that forward,” Wheeler said.

Another provision in the bill would allow teachers to take complaints to the Iowa Office of Ombudsman if they feel administrators are acting unethically around issues including school safety and discipline. It also protects teachers from retaliation by local school officials for sharing what they know.

When a school district directs teachers to undergo mandatory training, the bill would require for staff to be told where the training requirement comes from — whether it’s the state, the district or another agency.

It would also require schools to inform teachers at the beginning of the school year that they have a right under state law to defend themselves, other teachers and students.

The bill passed out of committee by a 15-8 vote. Wheeler said he’s planning amendments.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa