Arizona lawmakers to consider banning books in schools
By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Arizona state senators gave preliminary approval to a measure directing the Department of Education to come up with a list of books to ban in public schools.
And it wouldn't just include lewd or sexual materials.
SB 1700 would require the agency, which is currently headed by Republican Tom Horne, to also include on that list materials that "promote gender fluidity or gender pronouns.'' And the measure includes similar language on what local school boards and libraries must remove from their own shelves.
"Parents want to make sure that their children who are innocent, who are impressionable, get to have and hold onto that innocence that they have,'' Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, said during a hearing on her measure.
"They don't need to be reading about their best friend's erection and what it felt like in their hand,'' she said. "I'm tired of the normalizing of this perversion.''
And Wadsack's idea of preserving that innocence has no age limit, at least as far as children in public or charter schools.
"Children should not be thinking of these things when they're in K through 12,'' she told colleagues. "There's plenty of time for this when they get to college and when they're outside the purview of their parents.''
There was some debate on exactly where that line is. And even Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, who is a teacher, said there is content that is "too graphic for the classroom.''
"But there's also no room in the classroom or in libraries for banning books simply because it upsets one group of people at the expense of so many others,'' she said.
Marsh said what is likely to be banned are the books that reflect experiences of those not in the mainstream, including gay children and victims of sexual abuse. She said it's important that these books be available not only to ensure these children see themselves in literature but also that others develop empathy for them.
Of particular concern to some was that language on excising materials about gender fluidity and pronouns. Erica Keppler, an activist in the LGBTQ community, told lawmakers during a hearing that the language in the bill about "promoting'' either makes no sense.
"Gender fluidity is a naturally occurring phenomenon that some people experience,'' she said, no different than being left-handed or having curly hair -- and something that cannot be "promoted.'' And Keppler objected to it being lumped in with other subjects that would get books on the banned list.
"It's ridiculous and demeaning to include 'gender fluidity' in the same sentence as 'pedophilia,' '' she said.
Elijah Watson, representing himself, said he feared the parameters for the Department of Education to decide what's not allowed in schools is so broad that it would lead to banning "To Kill a Mockingbird,'' "The Great Gatsby,'' "Of Mice and Men'' and "The Color Purple.''
But Lisa Fink of the Protect Arizona Children Coalition said her group is more concerned with books she said have shown up in the libraries of the Kyrene and Deer Valley school districts like "It's Perfectly Normal.''
Designed for children age 10 and up, it addresses sexual health and contains sections on puberty, pregnancy and sexual orientation. And there also are full-color pictures of naked people.
And Anastasia Tsatsakis, who lost her bid in November to be on the Vail Unified School District governing goard, complained about "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian'' which is about a child from the Spokane Indian Reservation and his decision to go to a nearly all-white public high school away from the reservation. That objection caught the attention of Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson.
"I read this book with my grandchildren,'' she said. "It's a wonderful book.''
Tsatsakis said she has nothing against Native Americans but objected to references to masturbation and rape. She said excerpts were read during a school board meeting.
"I was hoping in the room no one had a small child present because what is in that book is so foul,'' Tsatsakis said.
"I appreciate that was your choice to read it with them,'' she told Gonzales. "It should be a parental choice in a personal environment, not in a school district.''
Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said existing law already bars public schools from referring students to or using any sexually explicit materials.
That law does have exceptions if they have "serious educational value for minors'' or possess "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.''
Even then, however, schools have to get prior written consent from parents for each book or article. And students who don't get consent have to be provided with an alternative assignment.
Then there's that issue of having the state Department of Education review and unilaterally decide for all schools which books are acceptable and which are not.
"This is an unprecedented state control of curriculum, the likes of which we haven't seen before in Arizona,'' Kotterman said.
And then there's the political side of it.
"Just this past year, the agency was headed by a Democrat,'' he reminded lawmakers, referring to Kathy Hoffman, who lost her bid for reelection in November to Republican Tom Horne.
"It will undoubtedly change hands again,'' Kotterman said. "That list will be subject to curation by people who work for that individual.''
Marsh had her own take on the idea of what would happen once the Department of Education posts a list on its website of what is considered inappropriate.
"That's what kids are going to read,'' she said.
Wadsack said her measure is not an attack on the LGBTQ community.
"I have a gay son,'' she told colleagues. But Wadsack said she has not approved any books that "would be wrong for him.''
The measure still needs a final roll-call vote before going to the House.