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Missouri Bill Prohibits Discussion of Sexual Orientation in Classroom

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Many of the writing assignments I teach are based on classroom discussions and each year some of the most interesting discussions concern the First Amendment rights of students.

Naturally, I talk about the Tinker case, in which Justice Abe Fortas wrote that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door. Of course, that ruling, which was handed down more than 40 years ago, is ancient history to my eighth graders, who know little about the Vietnam War or the protests that led to the Tinker ruling.

So to make it up to date and locally relevant to the students, I also use a court case from less than 10 years ago in our neighboring community of Webb City, Missouri. A gay high school student sued the school district after he was not allowed to wear a t-shirt signifying his "gay pride" or one that had the logo of the Gay-Straight Alliance organization he had belonged to at the school he had attended before transferring to Webb City.

The student's case was dismissed after he dropped out of school, but one of his friends, who was not gay, took the challenge, wore pro-gay clothing, was sent home, sued the school, and ended up with an out-of-court settlement that forced the school district to change its policies about clothing being used for political statements.

For the last few years, this has been an engaging topic for my students and has resulted in some thoughtful papers, with students making well-reasoned arguments for both sides.

I may never teach that case again.

If I even mention the Webb City case next year, I may very well be breaking the law.

A bill filed March 29 in the Missouri House of Representatives and sent to the Elementary and Secondary Education Committee April 18 would prohibit any discussion of sexual orientation in the classroom.

Not withstanding any other law to the contrary, no instruction, material, or extracurricular activity sponsored by a public school that discusses sexual orientation other than in scientific instruction concerning human reproduction shall be provided in any public school.

HB 2051 is sponsored by Rep. Steve Cookson, R-Fairdealing, and has 19 GOP co-sponsors, including the two most powerful leaders in the House, Speaker Steve Tilley and Majority Leader Tim Jones (yes, the same Tim Jones who is a plaintiff in Orly Taitz' birther lawsuits), who is poised to become Speaker of the House in 2013 since Tilley is term-limited.

The 2012 legislative session in Missouri has been an all-out attack on public schools and public school teachers, as it has been in many states. On Thursday, the Senate tabled discussion on a bill that would make teachers wait 10 years to receive tenure, the longest such time in the nation. One reason it was tabled is because there were several Republican legislators who wanted tenure eliminated, not amended.

But Steve Cookson's bill is even worse. Cookson and his co-sponsors are saying that if gay marriage, for example, or Don't Ask, Don't Tell become campaign issues in this year's presidential election, they cannot be discussed in high school government classes. Laws that are proposed in the state legislature itself would also be off-limits for discussion. Under Cookson's reactionary law, teachers would be unable to address the kind of bullying that often takes place because of students' sexual orientation.

It is likely that Cookson's bill came as a result of the recent settlement in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Camdenton, Missouri, School District, on behalf of a student who had been unable to access informational websites about gay issues because the district's filtering system blocked them, even while students had access to anti-gay sites and even some websites featuring explicit sex.

The lawsuit was settled with the district modifying its filtering system to allow access to informational websites, but that decision was met with scorn by many in the Camdenton community and apparently, some in the Missouri legislature.

While there are many who could have filed the bill whose names would not have surprised me, the fact that Cookson is the sponsor is a revelation -- since Cookson is a retired public school teacher, coach, and administrator. His House biography also notes that Cookson's parents were schoolteachers.

And now if this former teacher, who has spent much of his life with and around educators, has his way, the game will change forever in Missouri schools. The students will still have their constitutional rights -- it is the teachers who will have to shed theirs at the door.

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