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How Teachers Are Being Silenced on LGBTQ+ Issues and More

How Teachers Are Being Silenced on LGBTQ+ Issues and More

Teacher with mouth taped shut

In addition to laws that directly forbid mention of certain subjects, more subtle laws are having a negative impact, says a recent report from PEN America.

Being afraid to feature the work of queer artists. Seeing a Mother’s Day reading canceled because of a book featuring two moms. Removing “Safe Space” stickers. Getting fired because of one parent’s complaint.

These are among the consequences of “educational intimidation” laws, being passed under the guise of “parents’ rights,” to teachers around the nation, says a recent report from PEN America.

The report, “Educational Intimidation: How ‘Parental Rights’ Legislation Undermines the Freedom to Learn,” looks at legislation “that has the effect of prompting self-censorship in schools through indirect mechanisms, rather than direct edicts,” according to a press release from the group, which promotes freedom of expression in the U.S. and worldwide.

This type of legislation is “distinct from ‘educational gag orders,’ a class of bills previously documented by PEN America that directly ban what can be taught in classrooms, targeting discussions of race, racism, gender, aspects of American history and other ‘prohibited’ or ‘divisive’ concepts,” the release says.

“PEN America has previously documented the introduction and spread of ‘educational gag orders,’ explicit prohibitions on materials and content that can be taught in classrooms,” the report’s introduction reads. “But in 2023, it has become clear that the range of state-level bills that can have censorious implications for schools, colleges, and libraries is expanding rapidly. Increasingly, bills that exert direct censorship on public educational institutions by prohibiting specific topics or content are being complemented by a different kind of bill — one whose provisions do not censor schools directly but rather cast a chilling effect that creates the conditions for censorship indirectly, threatening the freedoms to teach and learn with death by a thousand cuts.”

“The provisions of this second category of bills pressure educators to be more timid in the content they teach, pressure librarians to be more restrictive in the books they make available to students, and pressure students to limit their self-expression, without imposing direct prohibitions,” the introduction continues. “Put simply, these ‘educational intimidation’ provisions, as we dub them, empower the use of intimidation tactics to cast a broad chilling effect over K- 12 classrooms by mandating new and intrusive forms of inspection or monitoring of schools, as well as new ways for members of the public — including, in some cases, citizens with no direct connection to the schools — to object to whatever they see that they do not like.”

Around 400 of these bills have been introduced in state legislatures between January 2021 and June 2023, and 38 of them have passed into law in 19 states, according to the report. The organization catalogs 12 types of educational intimidation provisions. These include provisions that would require teachers to post all instructional or professional development materials on public websites, making it easy for any citizen to object; would restrict students’ library access or make it easier for individual parents to get books banned for all students; invite parents to opt students into or out of certain content, creating unwieldy “a la carte” curricula that risk defeating the unifying purpose of public schools; expand the concept of “obscenity” beyond its well-established legal definition, opening educators and librarians up to criminal penalties; and require teachers to police students’ gender expression. Laws in Florida, Indiana, and at least seven other states require that parents be notified of any significant changes to their child’s gender expression or sexual orientation.

Among examples of the laws’ impact: An art teacher in Tennessee no longer teaches about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo or artist and AIDS activist Keith Haring because of a state law that requires teachers to alert parents to any LGBTQ+ content so they can withdraw their children from the lesson. Also in Tennessee, a Mother’s Day reading for students in kindergarten and first and second grades was canceled because local members of Moms for Liberty objected to the books that were chosen — “one about a girl who doesn’t know how to approach Mother’s Day as a child with two dads, and another about a bear who is seen as a mother figure by goslings,” the report says.

In Kalispell, Mont., because of a state law requiring two weeks’ notice to parents about lessons that may involve human sexuality, teachers had to let parents know when genetics and even nonhuman reproduction were to be discussed in science classes. “It feels like an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and overreach by the state to insert itself into locally controlled and elected school boards,” Kalispell Superintendent Micah Hill told local media.

One school district in Florida even banned “Safe Space” stickers, which designate spaces friendly to LGBTQ+ students, because of a provision in the state’s “parents’ rights” law, but not the provision that got it dubbed the “don’t say gay” law. Pasco County Superintendent Kurt Browning said that “a student’s presence in a designated ‘safe space’ could trigger a duty for Pasco County Schools staff to notify a parent of a potential change in their child’s well-being,” the Tampa Bay Times reported.

And in Cobb County, Ga., a teacher was fired for reading a book about gender stereotypes called My Shadow Is Purple by Scott Stuart to fifth-graders, based on a complaint by a sole parent who considered anything touching on LGBTQ+ issues to be “divisive.”

“This rising tide of educational intimidation exposes the movement that cloaks itself in the language of ‘parental rights’ for what it really is: a smoke screen for efforts to suppress teaching and learning and hijack public education in America,” Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, said in the press release. “The opportunity for parents to inspect and object to school curricula is already commonly granted in public school systems, as it should be. But this spate of provisions dramatically expands these powers in ways that are designed to spur schools and educators to self-censor. These bills risk turning every classroom into an ideological battleground, forcing teachers out of the profession, and jeopardizing the future of millions of students.”

“These bills are not what they seem,” Friedman continued. “They are the next phase in a years-long campaign to incite panic and impose ideological strictures on schools. Education in a democracy must be characterized by openness and curiosity, by the freedom to read, learn, and think. These bills strike at that foundation, in novel, sometimes subtle, yet potentially irrevocable ways. Their spread should not be taken lightly.”

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