By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — A bill to remove obscene or harmful sexual materials from school curriculum and libraries drew a crowd with conflicting opinions Thursday before the House Education Committee.
Similar to a bill last year that was tabled and died when the session adjourned, House Bill 1419 was the product of prime sponsor’s, Rep. Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro, work with the Attorney General’s Office to devise a process that includes civil penalties of $1,000 or more for violations when books and materials are not removed from schools after a decision on a complaint.
“You might have seen on social media or outside about banning books and so forth, (but that) is not the purpose of this legislation,” Cordelli said. “The purpose of this legislation is to prohibit materials that are harmful to minors in our schools.”
But others said it is about banning books if students do not have access to material that may be helpful to them even if it is questionable to others.
A number of educators said the bill is too vague and is duplicative of laws and processes already in place to deal with the issue.
“When will we stop wasting both time and dollars on the culture wars,” said Bedford town councilor Michael Strand, who has a child in the town’s elementary school. “This bill is an escalation to undermine local control.”
He noted the political bent of the State Board of Education, noting one is a conservative radio host, another homeschooled all five of his children and another is vice chair of the state Republican Party.
Strand said the bill is not about protecting his 10-year-old daughter because there are already mechanisms in place based on school district standards.
This is about censoring and high school curriculum someone finds objectionable, he said, noting real learning is often controversial and reading is often uncomfortable.
Committee member Rep. Peggy Balboni, D-Rye Beach, said the committee found last year when it looked at that bill, most school districts already have policies in place to address complaints and wondered if Cordelli found those policies were not sufficient.
Cordelli said he wanted a minimum requirement and an appeal to the state school board and was not sure how many of the local processes have the minimum needed.
Under his bill, the complaint would first go to the school principal, who would make a decision, and if the person did not like the ruling, it could be appealed to the school board, and then to the State Board of Education.
Several committee members questioned if the state board could rule on the decision or if the process was done correctly.
He said his bill would ensure materials in schools would be age appropriate and not allow access to material that would be inappropriate for the age level.
Under his bill, a civil action could be brought against violations that would have a fine of $1,000 and an educator can be referred based on a violation to the ethics code.
Several people testifying said civil fines and the threat of the loss of teaching credentials only adds to the chilling effect recent legislative actions have had on educators who seek a safe harbor and certainly does not help the current teacher shortage.
Gilles Bissonnette, Legal Director of ACLU-NH, said the proposal is “a bill in search of a problem. There is not any indication school boards’ policies are insufficient in (allowing) community members to raise concerns.”
But he said it upends the norm of having community standards decided at the local level with the appeal to the state board.
“This is aimed at culling out books and instructional material not covered under existing law,” he said, “and creates some serious constitutional issues.”
And Bissonnette said the bill is overly vague in determining what would be harmful to minors and the criminal section should be eliminated.
Current law has an exemption from the state’s obscenity laws for education, and Cordelli’s bill would remove Kindergarten through 12th grade from that exemption, which several committee members noted could mean criminal charges against educators.
But Betsy Harrison of Deering, one of several parents to support the bill and say it is high time something be done, said her experience with the Hillsboro-Deering School District shows local policies are not sufficient to address the problem.
She called herself a worried mom with grave concerns and two children in the school district.
“Boundaries need to be set, and set now,” Harrison told the committee, “or we might not come back from this.”
She said the bill would only stop the most blatant material. “It is a no brainer even for the liberal minded,” she said.
Harrison said her two kids were banned from the library after the first time she went to the school board.
She is allowed to see the sex ed curriculum two weeks before it is presented, but does not have the same opportunity with library material she noted.
Harrison said a library apt on the Chromebooks students are given has a hyperlink kids can access that will connect them to adults seeking sex.
The apt is a shared collection and promoted to thousands if not tens of thousands of students and is nationwide, she noted.
Harrison said she scheduled a private meeting with the board to discuss how to remove that apt, but a teacher posted it on social media and invited others to her meeting.
The state pays $250,000 a year to get trashy books, Harrison said.
Ann Marie Banfield of North Hampton, an education policy analyst once associated with Cornerstone Action, also supported the bill.
She told of working with a mother of an autistic child and the problems that resulted when he was exposed to sexual content at school.
Eventually the mother had to withdraw her child from public schools and homeschool him, Banfield said, noting the material should not be available to a student with those sensitivities but is.
Books can’t simply be removed because you don’t like them, she noted, but when they cross the line over to obscenity they can be.
But educators said the material that may appear offensive like on sexual abuse, may be what one student needs to read to learn he is not alone that others have gone through the same experience.
Debra Howes, president of the American Federation of
Teachers, said while someone may not want their child reading a book for an abused child it might be a lifeline and the child should be able to access it.
“Parents have the right to decide what their own children read,” Howes said, “but they do not have the right to decide what other parents’ children can read.”
The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.