A new ban on books with sexual content is making its way to Arizona public schools this week, and critics fear self-censorship will add further stress to already overstretched teachers.
“We are very concerned about the impact this…would have on teachers and students trying to access new materials that reflect their point of view, but also materials that have been used in the classroom for a long time,” said Gaelle Esposito, an Arizona Lobbyist working on education policy, LGBTQ+ rights, and other progressive issues.
“It is unclear what the consequences are for a teacher who breaks the law and what they may face. There is always concern that due to the vague language, it will have a chilling effect on teachers and libraries, for the books they will carry on their shelves.
House Bill 2495, signed into law by Governor Doug Ducey in July, prohibits public schools from using any material – text, audio or visual – containing descriptions of “sexual conduct”, “sexual arousal”, “ultimate sexual acts”.
The law allows exceptions for material that has “serious” educational, literary, artistic, political or scientific value. But even then, parental consent is required for every book or work to be shared with students. If parental consent is not given, schools must provide an alternate assignment for that parent’s child.
The bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, argues that it’s not about banning the books at all.
“The bottom line is that this bill is intended to protect children from sexually explicit material,” Hoffman told the Senate Education Committee in March, adding that it does not prohibit the teaching of anatomy or of biology.
“We need them to learn math, reading, writing and other incredibly important educational materials that will help them prepare for a vibrant and prosperous future, without worrying about sexually explicit material.”
Hoffman did not respond to requests for comment from Cronkite News.
The law takes effect on Saturday, but it’s still unclear how it will work in practice – who will patrol materials and contact parents, for example. And teacher advocates worry about the broader effects on stressed educators.
Jeanne Casteen, executive director of Secular AZ and a former professor of English, arts and literature, said the restrictions would exacerbate the state’s teacher retention problem, as educators “find the working conditions and apprenticeships in Arizona are untenable”.
“In Arizona, we’re chasing teachers out of the profession,” she said. “We train them here, then export our best and brightest to other states, because we continually treat teachers like they’re not the content experts they are.”
Officials from several Arizona school districts, including Mesa Public Schools, and the Arizona Department of Education did not immediately return messages asking for details on how the law will be enforced.
Book bans are on the rise nationwide, according to the nonprofit organization PEN America, which works to advance literature and defend free speech. From July 2021 to June 2022, the organization tracked 2,532 banned book cases, affecting 1,648 unique titles.
Since June, more than 139 additional bans have been enacted and educators who push back are suffering the consequences. An Oklahoma teacher quit after hanging a banned books sign that read “Books the state doesn’t want you to read” above her classroom library.
Of the books that have been challenged nationally, 41% deal with LGBTQ+ themes, while 40% contain significant protagonists or supporting characters of color, according to PEN America, suggesting censorship is at its worst. highest level.
Esposito, the Arizona lobbyist, noted that the original version of HB 2495 included a specific restriction on documents containing gay-related content.
“That in itself shows the intent here,” she said. “They want to censor discussion from various perspectives and use these extreme talking points to justify it.”
Casteen said titles that could be challenged include Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning story following the life journey of an African-American girl who was raped by her father, and ” Like Water for Chocolate” by Laura Esquivel, whose female characters navigate their sexuality.
Casteen said her students enjoy novels like these because they can relate to the characters.
“By sharing them with the students, a novel where they can see themselves and empathize with the experience and situations of the characters, that’s where the magic really happens.”
When Casteen once assigned Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” some of her students realized they had had similar experiences to the main character’s sexual assault story and contacted an adult from trust to get help.
Casteen calls Arizona’s new law “literature laundering.”
“It’s not fair to our students of color or even our LGBTQ+ students because a lot of books written by LGBTQ+ authors would come out,” she said. “These children, as we know, have a much higher rate of self-harm and suicide. Taking books away from these children puts them at greater risk.
“Instead of focusing on the real issues facing working-class teachers, students, and families in Arizona, we are committed to solving problems that don’t exist.”
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