I am the father of three young children and I work in higher education. I also sit on a school board in North Texas. In my first nine months, I have witnessed a number of crises, the latest of which is the debate over sexually explicit books in our K-12 schools.
The solution to this problem seemed simple: remove sexually explicit books from schools and put policies in place to prevent it from happening again. After all, who wants children to have access to sexually explicit material in schools?
Studies show that exposure to sexually explicit content can negatively shape sexual values, attitudes, and behaviors, which can increase high-risk behaviors, cause health problems, and normalize sexual abuse. These impacts are greater for children than for adults because they learn by imitation. Nevertheless, sexually explicit books have returned to schools under the guise of inquiry and literacy, in hopes of making the educational space more assertive. How did we get here?
American education has always included social and academic elements with the goal of forming informed citizenship. However, it is difficult to understand how books graphically depicting topics such as rape, pedophilia and sex with minors best achieve this goal.
If adults want sexually explicit content, that’s their First Amendment right. However, this does not oblige schools to make this content accessible to children. The Supreme Court has been clear on this, ruling that pornography is not protected and that literary works can be taken down if they are “pervasive” or not “educationally appropriate”.
Unfortunately, some still mistakenly believe that young minds are free for all and that sexually explicit books have greater intrinsic value if they deal with diverse perspectives. These positions are value judgments shaped by personal biases and beliefs, not rooted in fairness, child safety, or education.
In my district, sexually explicit material is put back into schools. An example, Not All Boys Are Blue: A Memory Manifesto, is filled with passages illustrating graphic sex. The author writes: “I remember the condom was blue and flavored with cotton candy. I put some lube on and…” The rest of this passage cannot be shared in a newspaper or read at a school board meeting. Yet somehow this book is considered pedagogically suitable for children in schools?
Many ask how books like Not all boys are blue obtain unanimous consent to return to children’s hands. A reasonable conclusion is personal bias and a lack of objective criteria. It doesn’t help that book challenge committees keep themselves out of public view and require participants to sign nondisclosure agreements.
The discourse on sexually explicit books has become increasingly partisan. One side is accused of bigotry and censorship and the other of sexualizing minors. These accusations are unnecessary. Where is the discussion about the quality of education our children are getting?
When books like Not all boys are blue are returned to the schools, one wonders if the interests of the pupils have not been completely ignored. In other words, how does sexually explicit content meet the specific reading needs of students? How does it build information literacy or critical thinking skills? How does he create empathy towards other groups of individuals? How does it contribute positively to school culture? How does it align with state and district learning standards?
How do we fix this? It starts with recognizing that this is not a one-book problem in one school. It starts with realizing that supporting research and literacy and protecting children are not mutually exclusive ideas. It starts with acknowledging that pornography projected through the prism of representation is still pornography. It starts with transparency, evidence-based policies, common purpose and the involvement of all stakeholders.
It is only when we recognize and do these things that we can create high quality, affirming learning spaces that also keep children safe.
Charles Randklev is a director of Keller ISD and a scientist at Texas A&M. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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