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Hoosier educators fear restrictive bills could return in 2023 session

During the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers among many others were hailed as “heroes” and “essential workers” due to their efforts spent learning new methods of communicating with students and offering help beyond the usual classroom experience.

Now many teachers say it’s almost like the script has been flipped, and what was once heroic and noble is now seen as insidious or an attempt to harm students. In the last two years, 42 of the 50 U.S. states authored bills that would limit how educators can discuss issues such as racism and sexism with students K-12.

In Indiana, Senate Bill 17 was proposed during the 2022 legislation. This bill’s goal was to prohibit the teaching and sharing of “harmful materials” in schools and libraries catering to students K-12. Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Centerville, co-authored the bill during the 2022 session.

“I think for obvious reasons, when you look at the concept of the bill, children … should be protected from certain things, and potentially pornography ought to be one of them,” Raatz said.

The bill was not without pushback, however. Many argued that the bill aims to silence diverse voices or whitewash American history. The subjective nature and lack of specificity in the bill’s language has been a major concern for educators and opposition. With no citations of certain literature, media or teaching materials, there was no way to clearly state what was or wasn’t the issue in certain classrooms or libraries.

Keith Gambill, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said that educators must present history in a way that is honest yet curated and suitable for specific grade levels. What may work for an advanced-placement U.S. history class in high school may not be suitable for a similar class in elementary school, Gambill acknowledged, but educators should have a commitment to honesty.

“We can’t whitewash it and gloss over it in some grand sweep to make it appear different than what it was,” Gambill said. “And so we have to have those conversations and examine: Why might our ancestors have done certain things that today we just look at as being wrong? And what can we learn from that? What are our takeaways? And how can we grow as a society and as a country? Those are important conversations.”

Minority Caucus Chair J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis, strongly disagreed with the proposed bills from the start, expressing concerns about the subjectivity of what is or is not deemed “harmful”.

“I specifically asked a parent in committee: Do you think LGBTQ topics are material that’s harmful to children? And that particular parent said yes,” Ford said. “[In the next session] I’m just hoping that we do less of the cultural war, less of the divisive stuff, and more about tackling the real issues that’s going on in our state.”

A local librarian who asked to remain anonymous due to not having permission from their employer to speak, expressed concern for the proposal of Senate Bill 17 and what it meant for the library and their department. Because teen clients often ask them for material on gender identities and racial discrimination, they worry about the comfort and mental health of those who seek solace in that material.

“My initial reaction was one of fear,” they said. “Those two sides of it—we can’t talk about racial discrimination, we can’t talk about queerness as an identity—kind of shows to me what the true agenda is. And it’s worrying, to put it simply.”

Senate Bill 17 did not get written into law, but many protestors expressed concern that its language and goals may return to the 2023 legislative session in a modified form.

Additionally, House Bill 1134 was proposed around the same time to ensure procedures were in place to hold educators accountable for teaching beyond an approved, preset curriculum. This banned discussion of certain concepts deemed “divisive,” such as critical race theory and social-emotional learning (SEL), another colloquialism often tossed around in discussions of modern education. This refers to mental or psychological health care in schools K-12, as well as some investigations into the wellbeing of a child’s living conditions or safety.

This bill also failed to be written into law in Indiana, but its effect and threat were felt throughout the world of education.

Jennifer Brinker, assistant principal at Greenwood Middle School in Indiana, does not believe that writing an entire curriculum a year in advance would be a beneficial method of teaching.

“It’s kind of like [lawmakers] wanted a very 1980s version of schools, where the teacher just pulls open their file cabinet and has their stack worth of worksheets that they’re going to do and already has that prescribed for the whole year, regardless of who walks through the door,” Brinker said. “And that’s not how we do things now. Now we are constantly collecting data and reevaluating and analyzing what we’re doing.

“It would be like having a coach turn in their playbook for the entire season without having met their team yet.”

Andrea Tiley, a developmental kindergarten teacher from Waverly Elementary School in Indiana, agreed with this sentiment.

“Trying to come up with lesson plans in advance would be impossible because you’re supposed to meet the children’s needs—so they’re not understanding something, you have to reteach it. So if you were making lesson plans a year in advance, you wouldn’t meet individual needs, you would just be teaching things. You just have to keep going.”

Another component of HB 1134 was the written consent of parents if their children were to undergo further SEL.

“That’s insane to me,” Brinker said. “First of all, a parent who’s not providing a stable or loving environment for their kid is not going to sign off consent to us to dig into that. They like it when we don’t talk to their kids at all. That would tie our hands completely in helping these kids improve.”

Scott Wilkerson, a special education teacher at Indian Creek High School in Trafalgar, Indiana, has been an educator for 20 years and did not support either bill due to the limitations they set on students.

“My personal opinion is we should give kids every bit of information they can take and then let them sort it out,” Wilkerson said. “I think senators and politicians don’t know what they’re talking about … I think most of the curriculum should be set by local levels, not state levels. Being an educator, I think we can help [students] decipher good from bad.”

Ari Lovitt, formerly a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, recently graduated from Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism. This report on Indiana’s recent spate of controversial education bills was completed as part of her senior project.