Senate, House continue to disagree on school books, educator penalties

By: - April 19, 2023 9:25 pm

Maddie Corley and Isaiah Morel walked with signs protesting recent legislation targeting LGBTQ youth at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines on April 18, 2023. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Iowa Senate sent Gov. Kim Reynolds’ “parental rights” bill back to the House Wednesday for another look as Republicans try to find a consensus on issues like “age-appropriate” school books and disciplinary measures for teachers who violate the bill’s proposed rules.

Senators passed Senate File 496 Wednesday on a 34-16 vote after amending the bill to reverse some of the changes made by the House. The House version of the bill would remove school books that include “graphic” depictions of sex acts, instead of all depictions of sex acts. The Senate removed the “graphic” qualifier, and added an exemption for religious texts, such as the Bible, Torah and Quran, which contain sex acts.

Curriculum and instruction involving “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” also would be prohibited for K-6 students under the bill.

Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-West Des Moines, said she knew a teacher who removed every book from her classroom out of  fear of  violating the measures in this bill.

“She’s afraid that there will be some passage in there that she didn’t think about, didn’t notice, wasn’t looking at it with the eyes that some folks seem to have about these issues, and she’ll be punished for them,” Trone Garriott said. “And she’s so scared of being punished, she’s so scared of the risk that she’s removed every book from her classroom. And I think that’s a really sad state to be in.”

Educator penalties restored

The Senate restored disciplinary measures for school staff who violate the rules on book appropriateness or who provide gender-affirming accommodations to students without parental permission. Staff knowingly in violation of these rules would be subject first to a warning. Any subsequent infractions would result in Board of Education Examiners disciplinary hearing for the teacher or administrator, where their license could be revoked.

Sen. Eric Giddens, D-Cedar Falls, said teachers in his district were concerned about the implications of these disciplinary measures and asked for clarification on enforcement timelines, and whether a school administrator could be punished for a teacher violating these rules.

The bill’s floor manager, Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, referred Giddens to the text of the bill. But Giddens said teachers were concerned about, for example, whether a teacher would be subject to a disciplinary hearing for using student’s preferred name in one instance and separately allowing a book with a sexual act in their classroom.

“I mean, this is new law,” Giddens said. “We’re going to — we’re going to encounter these situations, and folks in my district are asking for clarity.”

Rozenboom answered that the bill lists these two offenses in separate sections, but did not specify whether teachers would be subject to a BOEE hearing in such a case if this bill becomes law.

“Beyond that, there’s little value in … discussing hypotheticals here, I believe,” Rozenboom said. “I think the language is clear.”

Bill drops requirement for school staff to report trans kids

Senators kept other House changes in their latest version of the bill. The legislation no longer requires schools to inform parents if any school staff believes a student identifies as transgender. The removal of that provision also eliminates the requirement that school officials contact the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services if they believes the child would be put at risk if their guardians are informed about their child’s gender identity.

Instead, the bill says schools cannot provide parents “false or misleading information” about their child’s gender identity. If a student wants gender-related accommodations, such as the use of a different name or pronouns, they would need their parents’ approval.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, criticized the removal of HHS notification in cases where a child may be in danger.

“Even if the school has advanced knowledge of the parents’ attitude, adverse attitude, and possibly violent tendencies towards transgender people, the school must still report to that parent if a kid simply asked to use a different name,” Quirmbach said. “… How is that not being complicit in any violence that might ensue?”

Bill restricts surveys, changes health teaching requirements

Parental permission is also required under the bill for participation in surveys, activities and evaluations that involve the disclosure of personal information of the child or their family. Advocates have expressed concerns that provision would limit schools and children support groups from learning what issues students face, because the bill would restrict programs like the Iowa Youth Survey.

Schools would not be required to teach students in health and human development classes about AIDS, the human papilloma virus and availability of the HPV vaccine, but the bill does require teaching on sexually transmitted diseases.

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls said this bill will push teachers out of Iowa.

“I think it’s safe to say that based on this legislation … after teachers and therapists, nurses, social workers start to really understand the choices that you are going to force them to make, it’s not just going to be teachers who are leaving who don’t want to comply with this type of restriction,” Wahls said. “Now you might think to yourself, ‘Good, we don’t want those teachers in Iowa.’ But I hope you all understand how acute the shortage is for teachers in this state and how this legislation is going to make that worse, not better.”

Quirmbach said the bill, along with previously approved bans on gender-affirming care for transgender youth and restrictions on the use of school bathrooms, is sending a message to LGBTQ+ Iowans.

“Over the course of this whole session, this bill and a flock of other bills, the message to LGBT kids is very clear: ‘We don’t want you here. We want you to go back in the closet,'” Quirmbach said. “And that only means that there will be more of these children who commit suicide. That’s not making them safe, that’s putting them in danger.”

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, disagreed with Democrats who argued this bill is attacking LGBTQ youth. Zaun said he has spoken with gay and transgender youth who came to the Capitol to protest the LGBTQ-related legislation this session. He said he has supported measures to make sure LGBTQ children are not bullied in school, but that this bill is about allowing parents to mediate  the discussion and information on LGBTQ issues and other sensitive subjects with their children.

“The implication that we hate these young people makes me sick,” Zaun said. “‘I hate these young people’ — no one in this chamber hates young people. These issues that we’re talking about today should be done with the parents, through a psychologist or a counselor. They shouldn’t be done in schools.”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.