June 20, 2019
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How #MeToo found its way into a debate over what Maine kids read in school

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Republican state Reps. Amy Arata and her father Richard Bradstreet discuss legislation in the House Chamber at the State House in Augusta, Jan. 17, 2019.

Discussion of a bill that originally would have criminalized the act of exposing students in Maine public schools to obscene material veered Monday into a debate over trigger warnings and censorship, parental and teacher rights, and how best to navigate talk of sexual assault in an era of #MeToo.

LD 94, proposed by Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, originally proposed amending state statute to make it legal to charge teachers and school administrators with a Class C crime if they knowingly allow — without student or parental consent — students to be exposed to sexually explicit or violent material, be it in the form of literature, art or film.

On Monday, Arata said she’s “anxious to find a compromise” that eliminates the criminal component while emphasizing the mandate for written consent. “We’re going to get rid of [the criminal component] entirely,” she said.

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If the Republican-sponsored bill passes, which is unlikely in a Democratic-controlled Legislature, it would require teachers across the state to gain written consent from parents before teaching anything that could be considered obscene. Maine law largely bases the definition of “obscene matter” on community standards, describing it as material presented in a “patently offensive manner” that “as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

Arata proposed the bill after her son was assigned in his high school English class to read Haruki Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore,” which had sexually explicit scenes she felt were inappropriate for teenagers.

Other parents have reached out to Arata with similar complaints, she said, but she has not heard from any student survivors of sexual abuse who’ve been triggered by content they’ve been assigned in the classroom. Arata sought input from the Auburn-based Not Here Justice in Action Network for her bill.

At Monday’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee hearing, proponents added a new argument to some of the more commonly cited reasons — modeling “damaging” lifestyles, age-inappropriateness and content dealing with sexuality — for keeping certain books out of the classroom. Arata and others who spoke in favor of the bill said it would serve as a protective measure for children or teenage sexual assault survivors.

Those students may be inadvertently “triggered” by reading about the topic in a teacher-assigned book, said Mike McClellan, a former Republican legislator who now serves as Christian Civic League of Maine policy director.

While it’s crucial to be “thoughtful about content that might be triggering,” facilitating thoughtful conversation about this type of behavior is just as important, said Cara Courchesne, communications director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Using literature to, for example, facilitate controlled conversation about sexual abuse in the classroom could “reduce isolation kids may feel” and help “prevent [future] violence,” Courchesne said.

“It’s not about whether students are triggered by assignments but about taking care with any material that’s being taught,” she said. “It’s about being a good educator.”

Typically, lawmakers and lobbyists for conservative Christian causes such as parental rights and “school choice” have based their arguments on upholding traditional values as defined by their interpretation of Judeo-Christian teachings. The Christian Civic League of Maine, for example, has historically emphasized adherence to conservative interpretations of the Bible in its opposition to gay rights, abortion and same-sex marriage.

As recently as last year, McClellan’s organization lobbied aggressively against a bill that would have banned conversion therapy in Maine, calling it “Orwellian.” Former Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the bill, but a new version has been introduced this session.

Protecting children from multiculturalism and progressive “ indoctrination” in public schools has been a consistent rallying point for social conservatives. But with intensified national and State House scrutiny of the social and individual impacts of sexual assault and sexual harassment — which spawned the #MeToo movement — advocates for Arata’s bill argued that it would help parents shield children who have been abused from content that could amplify the after-effects of that abuse.

[Warning: This education might trigger trauma.]

“Given the complexity of the current culture, I think we need to be concerned … with each child’s story and what they bring to school,” McClellan said. “Parent input is invaluable to ensure the health and safety of their child in these matters.”

But there are already mechanisms in place to give parents that right to input, testified Vicki Wallack, director of communications and government relations for the Maine School Management Association. If there’s an objection to curriculum, parents and guardians can take complaints to their community school board, Wallack said.

Rather than making it a criminal offense to distribute learning material that may not meet the legal definition of obscene or community standards for inappropriate, “this is a decision that is best handled locally with your school board — people who you elect and most likely represent, as a group, the norms of your community,” she said.

And though the intention of bill supporters might not be censorship, that’s what would happen, Claudette Brassil, former English teacher at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham, said, because, “what is obscene to one person or group may be judged to have artistic or social merit to another.”

A committee work session for the bill is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday.

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