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Utah lawmakers are revisiting the ‘sensitive materials’ in schools debate

The Utah House in session at the state capitol, Jan. 17, 2023, in Salt Lake City.
Briana Scroggins
Special to KUER
The Utah House in session at the state capitol, Jan. 17, 2023, in Salt Lake City.

Utah lawmakers have proposed several bills concerning “sensitive materials” in schools and curriculum. Some in the education community worry about the number of bills and how quickly they are coming after last year’s controversial legislation.

During the 2022 legislative session, lawmakers banned “pornographic or indecent” books in schools. After the law went into effect last May, the Utah State Board of Education created a model policy and school districts sorted through their own policies for reviewing books.

Rep. Ken Ivory sponsored the law and is back this year with a follow-up. Under HB464, if one school district reviews a book and decides to remove it because it describes or depicts “illicit sex or sexual immorality,” the district would then send the book to the state board and point out each section that they believed violated the law. The state board could then decide to ban it in all public schools statewide.

“It’s just those kind of ‘worst of the worst,’ the ones that we call the ‘bright line violation,’ that would go up to the state board,” Ivory told the House Education Committee on Feb. 23.

Ivory said this would simplify things, and create a uniform standard across the state and save school resources.

The bill would also require the state board to create an age-appropriateness rating system for books regarding things like “language, criminal activity, self-harm, drug use, suicidal ideation, and sexual content, including sexuality and gender identity.”

Ivory’s bill narrowly passed out of committee, 7 to 6, and then was circled on the House floor on Feb. 24. Before voting against it in committee, Rep. Dan Johnson expressed concern about the number of bills this session surrounding content in schools.

“I'm concerned that we’ve sent a message to people that they don't do their job, that they're inefficient, ineffective.”

Johnson said passing multiple bills about what content is allowed in schools could make people feel like the Legislature is “heavy-handed.”

“I'm hoping that we can narrow this down, do one thing that really works well, give it a chance,” he said.

In addition to Ivory’s bill, Rep. Melissa Ballard is sponsoring a “Sensitive Material Requirements” bill related to last year’s legislation. HB138 deals with instructional materials and curriculum from vendors that are deemed to fall under the category of “sensitive materials.”

Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist recently introduced HB550, which would restrict conversations about sexuality in the classroom and ban those conversations in kindergarten through third grade. Along those same lines, HB 427 from Rep. Tim Jimenez deals with conversations about racism and sexism in the classroom.

There are also bills dealing with school transparency. Rep. Jordan Teuscher’s course content transparency bill, HB344, failed in the House. But Rep. Douglas Welton’s HB465 would require schools to have a website where parents can see what books are in the library of their child’s school.

In a motion passed on Feb. 23, the Utah State Board of Education recommended that the Legislature hold all of these bills, and a few others related to last year’s legislation, so the board would have time to study the cost and the staffing needed to implement them.

“I want to make sure that I’m really clear that this is not a motion to debate the politics or the content of these bills,” board member Sarah Reale said after proposing the motion.

To her, it felt like a lot of these bills were overlapping each other.

“We still have not had a chance to truly assess the impacts of the previous bills and work through all the issues and the concerns. And even understand what those issues and concerns are on such similar bills from the previous legislative year,” Reale said.

Briawna Hugh, a parent of four children in the Alpine School District and an English teacher, has seen how last year’s bill has played out in her district. She was a member of book review committees that evaluated challenged books and voted on whether they should be kept in schools, be removed or carry an age restriction.

The committee, which included librarians, teachers, parents and administrators read two books about transgender teenagers. Hugh felt the committee had a broad perspective. She said some members were uncomfortable talking about anything dealing with transgender people and some in the group were parents of transgender kids. The meeting lasted two hours and Hugh felt it was a thorough, productive conversation. She said the committee wrestled with what to do. They discussed the challenges that transgender kids face and which students could benefit from reading the books.

“We have no idea what they’re facing. And yet, they’re coming to us every day as students and putting on a brave face and, you know, getting through stuff,” Hugh said. “And we can’t in good conscience just remove it [the book] completely because if there’s someone who needs help. Where are they going to go for resources?”

The committee talked about the dangers of transgender students only being able to turn to the internet for help, Hugh said, and possibly getting taken advantage of. She worries about the effect these bills would have on local control and the overlap between some of the bills.

“It feels very much like they either don’t know how the education process works or they don’t trust it or they don’t agree with the decisions that are made.”

Whether or not these bills pass, Hugh worries teachers will decide to eliminate a lot of books in their classroom just to be safe because of how much they have on their plate already.

“We do a lot of things for a lot of kids,” Hugh said. “One of the things I think is really concerning about some of these bills is just the idea that teachers will then be like, ‘You know what? Don't worry about it. We're just not going to teach novels. We're not going to do any of this stuff. I can't open myself up to some of these concerns.’”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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