State Senate legislation requiring schools to identify sexual content in books, class material currently blocked in House
BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Legislation recently passed by the state Senate could mean Lehigh Valley school districts would have to go through all of their school library books and classroom material to weed out content some state lawmakers have deemed “sexually explicit.”
An Allentown lawmaker who heads the House Education Committee said the bill is dead for now.
But some local school districts said if such a state mandate passed, it could mean a significant undertaking to review all district content with no additional state funding to accomplish the task.
“I have no doubt that there would be a cost associated with implementing this,” said Maureen Leeson, assistant superintendent for Bethlehem Area School District.
“There have been many initiatives that have come forth from the Pennsylvania Department of Education that have required us to invest a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of resources making sure that we're in compliance.”
Bethlehem still is owed $1.6 million in Level Up funding that was approved to go to the state’s poorest school districts. The money’s been caught up in a political battle over school vouchers.
Senate sponsor Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, said his bill would require school districts to assess their library books and classroom materials for all grades to make sure they do not contain explicit material about sex.
It’s defined in the legislation in three ways: “materials that contain visual or visually implied depictions of sexual conduct or simulations of sexual conduct,” “explicit and excessive written descriptions of sexual conduct” and “visual depictions of nudity accessible to minors in kindergarten through grade eight.”
“Oftentimes there are books in the library that educators and librarians aren't aware of that contain this extremely graphic material."State Senator Ryan Aument
Types of defined sexual conduct in the bill include descriptions of a character having sex alone or with another person, "bestiality or physical contact with a person's clothed or unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks or, if the person is a female, breast."
Aument said he’s been given examples of books found in school district libraries that explain to kids how to have sex.
“Oftentimes there are books in the library that educators and librarians aren't aware of that contain this extremely graphic material,” he said.
Unreviewed material would stay off-limits to students until it's examined. The lawmaker said the proposed law would let districts come up with their own review process and give them flexibility in completing the task.
The bill would require districts to notify parents about any objectionable content as defined by the proposal after its review. Parents then would be able to opt-in for their child to have access to the books or classroom material.
The legislation also would apply to intermediate schools, career and technical schools and charter schools, including cyber and regional charter schools.
Aument’s legislation passed the state Senate 29-21. It’s currently in the House Education Committee, chaired by Lehigh County Democrat Peter Schweyer. He said he won’t advance it and called it a “straight-up book ban.”
“They couch it in language to soften the blow because the politics around book bans are so fraught right now,” Schweyer said. “But it's a book ban and you don't need my word for it.
"The Education Law Center and a number of other testifiers were extraordinarily vocal about what it actually does, which reduces and rolls back the options of professional educators, librarians and parents to have those options in school. It's stupid.”
While the bill isn’t expected to go anywhere anytime soon, Democrats control the House by only a one-vote majority.
"They couch it in language to soften the blow because the politics around book bans are so fraught right now. But it's a book ban."Pennsylvania House Education Committee Chairman Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh County
Aument disputes his bill bans books and said it actually protects against book bans by offering a clear state standard.
“If my 13-year-old son came home from his middle school, with a book or having had seen a book on a how-to-sex guide, extremely graphic how-to sex guide and there was not a process by which I could protect my child from that material, I would absolutely demand that that book be removed from the library,” he said.
"So Senate Bill 7 does ensure that there is that process.”
The Education Law Center’s senior policy advisor Sharon Ward testified Pennsylvania law already includes strong protections for parents to opt their children out of curriculum or lessons and to oversee students’ library book choices.
It also includes the authority by school boards to remove books is limited by federal and state law, including the First Amendment, Ward said.
"If [lawmakers] don't offer the funds, then yes, it will be a financial burden, and it will be an unexpected expense that we would be told that we have to do and that we'd have to do and find the money to do it."Nazareth Area Schools Superintendent Richard Kaskey
Nazareth Area School Board delayed a final vote in October on a book a member of the Northampton Moms for Liberty chapter asked to be removed from the high school library shelves.
The delay came, in part, because of the cost of reviewing books that members of the group asked to be removed from shelves.
The total cost for the district to review four books totaled $16,000. One board member said he was concerned that to evaluate all 23 books initially submitted to the district could cost over $100,000.
Nazareth Superintendent Richard Kaskey said if Aument’s bill or something similar were to become law, it may act as an unfunded mandate. The bill has no appropriations language included in it.
Kaskey said staff would have to focus on the evaluation process outside of school hours so students could still get taught during the day, adding to staff workloads.
"Well, if [lawmakers] don't offer the funds, then yes, it will be a financial burden, and it will be an unexpected expense that we would be told that we have to do and that we'd have to do and find the money to do it,” Kaskey said.
Correction: This article was updated to correct the description of types of defined sexual conduct in the bill.