Analysis Politics

State Lawmakers Tell Teachers What They Can and Can’t Say

Martha Kempner

Next week the Tennessee legislature will vote on a law to prevent teachers from talking about homosexuality in class.  This is not the first or the last time lawmakers have censored educators.

Over the last few weeks, Tennessee lawmakers have been working on legislation that would effectively make it illegal for teachers to talk about homosexuality in the classroom before ninth grade. The laws states that “No public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality” in grades K-8. While they went back and forth with amendments and counter amendments, the Senate education committee ultimately passed the bill which has been proposed by its sponsor for each of the last six years. The full Senate will likely vote on the measure this week or next. 

Not surprisingly, some people applauded the bill for keeping “inappropriate” topics away from young children while others called it censorship and discrimination. Some people in the state questioned why the bill was necessary as, according to one lawmaker, the “existing laws already prohibits such instruction by deeming it a misdemeanor to teach any sex education that is not part of the ‘family life curriculum’ adopted by the state Board of Education.”  Many just wondered how such a law could work and why a state legislature would get that intimately involved in what teachers can and cannot say in the classroom.

But we shouldn’t be shocked or even surprised by this. State lawmakers have had their hands and voices in sex education classes for years.  In truth, it is not entirely outside their purview to do so.  While specific decisions about curricula and lecture topics are often left up to local school boards and even principals and teachers, laws in most states set the stage for sexuality education. States routinely tell schools what they have to teach and what they can’t teach. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 20 states and the District of Columbia mandate both sex education and HIV education and 12 states mandate HIV education alone (interestingly, no state mandates just sex education).  In addition, 29 states say that if such education is taught it must meet certain requirements such as being age-appropriate and/or medically accurate. 

While many states stop there and let local officials and educators make the rest of the decisions about what gets said in the classroom, others go farther by setting content requirements and limitations around certain topics; 36 states require that information on abstinence be included (27 of them require that abstinence be stressed), 18 states require that instruction on the “importance of engaging in sexual activity only within marriage be provided,” and 12 states require that sexual orientation be covered.

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No Homo Promo

Unfortunately, when sexual orientation is mentioned in state laws, it often looks much like what is proposed in Tennessee.  Sometimes glibly referred to as “no homo promo” policies, these laws insist that education be biased against homosexual relationships and families.  In Mississippi, for example, sex education classes must present “monogamous heterosexual relationships as the only appropriate place for sexual intercourse.” In South Carolina classes may not discuss “alternate sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships including, but not limited to, homosexual relationships, except in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted disease.”  

Arizona’s law includes what I see as an interesting conundrum for teachers as the program must be medically accurate but  cannot promote a “homosexual lifestyle,” portray “homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style,” or “suggest that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.”  Given that what makes sex safer has to do with the behavior one chooses to engage in, not the sex or gender of one’s partner, this would be a hard rule to follow in a medically accurate manner. 

Teachers in Alabama face a similar dilemma; there, classes must:

“emphasize in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.” 

There is no public health perspective that one could call on to make this claim.  Moreover, state laws criminalizing homosexual behavior like the one that this law refers to were found to be unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision.   

Advancing Their Own Opinions

Stacey Campfield, the author of the Tennessee law, claims that his goal is to prevent what he sees as gay rights activists pushing their agenda in the schools because schools “should not be advocating for or against homosexuality.”  And yet, by preventing discussion of it, he is clearly advancing a specific opinion. 

State lawmakers do this all the time.  They use their power to control what topics are taught, what types of materials are used, and what teachers say. 

In Utah, for example, the law goes so far as to say that teachers cannot answer certain questions. In Utah, consensual sexual intercourse outside of marriage is illegal, and yet the sex education law states that:  “[a]t no time may instruction be provided, including responses to spontaneous questions raised by students, regarding any means or methods that facilitate or encourage the violation of any state or federal criminal law by a minor or adult.”  This has been interpreted to mean that teachers cannot discuss sexual behavior at all nor can they discuss contraception or condoms. 

In fact, controversy erupted in 2008, when a middle school teacher in Utah’s Jordan School District reportedly responded to students’ questions about “homosexual sex, oral sex and masturbation.”  Though it is unclear exactly what the teacher said, she was placed on administrative absence while the school investigated the claims because the information provided was deemed contrary to state law. 

Upon hearing about the scandal, Carl Wimmer, a conservative state lawmaker, decided that the real problem with the existing law on sex education was that the penalties teachers faced for violating it were purely administrative. He said he would introduce legislation that would criminalize such violations of policy. (Rep. Wimmer told me in an email that he ultimately did not introduce the legislation because the district was able to handle the situation to the satisfaction of his constituents.)  

Wimmer’s solution may have seemed extreme but he is not the only state legislator in the country who has reacted to something said or seen in a classroom.  In 2003, Kansas State Senator Susan Wagel was outraged by materials used in a college-level human sexuality class at the state university.  A legislative aide who was taking the class was apparently offended by movies shown during a lecture as well as comments allegedly made by the professor, a 20-year veteran of the university.  The Senator argued that the materials were pornographic and constituted harassment of female students. 

In response, she proposed an amendment to the state budget that would have cut all state funding for any university department that showed “obscene” videos to students.  The amendment was passed by the legislature but vetoed by then-Governor Kathleen Sebelius (now the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) who felt it violated academic freedom. 

Over ten years ago, Ohio state legislators were so offended by materials used in an HIV-prevention training of teachers that they passed an amendment freezing the CDC funds that had supported the training. The lawmakers were apparently appalled by information on condoms as well as a handout of common terms for sexual activities and reproductive anatomy despite the fact that the training was for adults and none of the material in question was ever intended for students.  Nonetheless, legislators felt it was highly inappropriate. The long and short of this controversy (which dragged on for more than two years) is that the state of Ohio returned one million dollars of federal money to the CDC, only 10 percent of which was even slated for HIV-prevention programs. The rest would have supported prevention programs for heart disease, cancer, and tobacco use; programs to promote of physical exercise; and dental services for young people. 

Unenforceable yet Highly Effective

Laws like the one proposed in Tennessee are in many ways unenforceable.  Big brother is not in fact watching, there are no cameras in classrooms, and we have yet to invent the human version of the anti-bark collar (imagine a necklace that sends a short electric shock when “offensive” words like gay, lesbian, masturbation, or condom are spoken).  Still, these laws have a huge impact.  Teachers know that what they say in a classroom can and will be repeated to other students, administrators, or parents.  And they know that all it takes is one person who thinks they crossed some line or another to start a controversy that makes it all the way to the state house.  Teachers across the country censor themselves every day so as to avoid becoming the target of these kinds of incidences. 

If the Tennessee legislation becomes law, teachers there will undoubtedly watch what they say even more than usual. While it may be easy enough not to introduce lesson plans on sexual orientation, I can’t quite figure out what a teacher is supposed to do when talking to a student who has two mothers, what a guidance counselor will say when a student who is questioning his/her sexual orientation asks for help, or how administrators will handle bullying incidents that involve taunts of “that’s so gay.” 

Campfield may or may not have thought about these situations. I’m guessing that either way he doesn’t care. He is advancing his own opinion through legislation, and in his mind it is better to completely ignore the existence of homosexuality than help young people. But I have to wonder if the other members of the Tennessee Senate, even those who are likely to vote in favor of this measure, have given any thought to the real implications of silencing teachers.  And I have to hope that when they do, they (and their counterparts across the country) will stop using their power to control classroom discussions and instead leave the education of our young people to those with the skills and training to do it well.

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”

Culture & Conversation Family

‘Abortion and Parenting Needs Can Coexist’: A Q&A With Parker Dockray

Carole Joffe

"Why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place?"

In May 2015, the longstanding and well-regarded pregnancy support talkline Backline launched a new venture. The Oakland-based organization opened All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center, a Bloomington, Indiana, drop-in center that offers adoption information, abortion referrals, and parenting support. Its mission: to break down silos and show that it is possible to support all options and all families under one roof—even in red-state Indiana, where Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence signed one of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.

To be sure, All-Options is hardly the first organization to point out the overlap between women terminating pregnancies and those continuing them. For years, the reproductive justice movement has insisted that the defense of abortion must be linked to a larger human rights framework that assures that all women have the right to have children and supportive conditions in which to parent them. More than 20 years ago, Rachel Atkins, then the director of the Vermont Women’s Center, famously described for a New York Times reporter the women in the center’s waiting room: “The country really suffers from thinking that there are two different kinds of women—women who have abortions and women who have babies. They’re the same women at different times.”

While this concept of linking the needs of all pregnant women—not just those seeking an abortion—is not new, there are actually remarkably few agencies that have put this insight into practice. So, more than a year after All-Options’ opening, Rewire checked in with Backline Executive Director Parker Dockray about the All-Options philosophy, the center’s local impact, and what others might consider if they are interested in creating similar programs.

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Rewire: What led you and Shelly Dodson (All-Options’ on-site director and an Indiana native) to create this organization?

PD: In both politics and practice, abortion is so often isolated and separated from other reproductive experiences. It’s incredibly hard to find organizations that provide parenting or pregnancy loss support, for example, and are also comfortable and competent in supporting people around abortion.

On the flip side, many abortion or family planning organizations don’t provide much support for women who want to continue a pregnancy or parents who are struggling to make ends meet. And yet we know that 60 percent of women having an abortion already have at least one child; in our daily lives, these issues are fundamentally connected. So why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place? That’s what All-Options is about.

We see the All-Options model as a game-changer not only for clients, but also for volunteers and community supporters. All-Options allows us to transcend the stale pro-choice/pro-life debate and invites people to be curious and compassionate about how abortion and parenting needs can coexist .… Our hope is that All-Options can be a catalyst for reproductive justice and help to build a movement that truly supports people in all their options and experiences.

Rewire: What has been the experience of your first year of operations?

PD: We’ve been blown away with the response from clients, volunteers, donors, and partner organizations …. In the past year, we’ve seen close to 600 people for 2,400 total visits. Most people initially come to All-Options—and keep coming back—for diapers and other parenting support. But we’ve also provided hundreds of free pregnancy tests, thousands of condoms, and more than $20,000 in abortion funding.

Our Hoosier Abortion Fund is the only community-based, statewide fund in Indiana and the first to join the National Network of Abortion Funds. So far, we’ve been able to support 60 people in accessing abortion care in Indiana or neighboring states by contributing to their medical care or transportation expenses.

Rewire: Explain some more about the centrality of diaper giveaways in your program.

PD: Diaper need is one of the most prevalent yet invisible forms of poverty. Even though we knew that in theory, seeing so many families who are struggling to provide adequate diapers for their children has been heartbreaking. Many people are surprised to learn that federal programs like [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC] and food stamps can’t be used to pay for diapers. And most places that distribute diapers, including crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), only give out five to ten diapers per week.

All-Options follows the recommendation of the National Diaper Bank Network in giving families a full pack of diapers each week. We’ve given out more than 4,000 packs (150,000 diapers) this year—and we still have 80 families on our waiting list! Trying to address this overwhelming need in a sustainable way is one of our biggest challenges.

Rewire: What kind of reception has All-Options had in the community? Have there been negative encounters with anti-choice groups?

PD: Diapers and abortion funding are the two pillars of our work. But diapers have been a critical entry point for us. We’ve gotten support and donations from local restaurants, elected officials, and sororities at Indiana University. We’ve been covered in the local press. Even the local CPC refers people to us for diapers! So it’s been an important way to build trust and visibility in the community because we are meeting a concrete need for local families.

While All-Options hasn’t necessarily become allies with places that are actively anti-abortion, we do get lots of referrals from places I might describe as “abortion-agnostic”—food banks, domestic violence agencies, or homeless shelters that do not have a position on abortion per se, but they want their clients to get nonjudgmental support for all their options and needs.

As we gain visibility and expand to new places, we know we may see more opposition. A few of our clients have expressed disapproval about our support of abortion, but more often they are surprised and curious. It’s just so unusual to find a place that offers you free diapers, baby clothes, condoms, and abortion referrals.

Rewire: What advice would you give to others who are interested in opening such an “all-options” venture in a conservative state?

PD: We are in a planning process right now to figure out how to best replicate and expand the centers starting in 2017. We know we want to open another center or two (or three), but a big part of our plan will be providing a toolkit and other resources to help people use the all-options approach.

The best advice we have is to start where you are. Who else is already doing this work locally, and how can you work together? If you are an abortion fund or clinic, how can you also support the parenting needs of the women you serve? Is there a diaper bank in your area that you could refer to or partner with? Could you give out new baby packages for people who are continuing a pregnancy or have a WIC eligibility worker on-site once a month? If you are involved with a childbirth or parenting organization, can you build a relationship with your local abortion fund?

How can you make it known that you are a safe space to discuss all options and experiences? How can you and your organization show up in your community for diaper need and abortion coverage and a living wage?

Help people connect the dots. That’s how we start to change the conversation and create support.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the spelling of Shelly Dodson’s name.

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