While Many Politicians Are Focused on Book Bans, Kids Are Dying
Bruce Lesley, First Focus Campaign for ChildrenChild Rights Education
Education is a children’s issue.
Unfortunately, far too often, lawmakers ignore the needs, concerns, and best interests of children when making policy on education and other issues that impacts their lives. This is exactly what happened when the House of Representatives took up and passed H.R. 5, the so-called “Parents Bill of Rights,” by a vote of 213–208 this past week.
H.R. 5 imposes new bureaucracy, red tape, and reporting requirements upon public schools across this country without any funding to pay for it. This diverts much needed resources, time, and attention by teachers and educations away from students.
This is the opposite of what students need.
Rather than adding more bureaucracy and red tape to schools and promoting a chilling effect through increasing incidences of book bans, censorship, and the whitewashing of history, literature, and classroom discussion, as H.R. 5 does, Congress should be addressing the real needs and concerns of children.
As Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-FL) asked on the House floor this past week:
What about the rights of our students? What about the rights of our young people?
Unfortunately, far too many politicians pay lip service to children, but are far more focused on culture wars, politics, and the interests of certain adults. Both their actions and inactions speak volumes.
Our society commonly invokes children, but rarely puts children at the center of our politics, because children are, practically and morally, a marginal group without rights and privileges whose needs are subordinate to another group’s needs, which is their parents’.
The rights of children — the right to grow, develop and change — is conspicuous for its absence in the debate over trans rights, book bans and oppressive forms of government control in states like Florida. If the rights of children had any recognition, it might be clear that banning books on any topic is an infringement of those rights.
Unfortunately, we are seeing record attempts to ban books in this country, as over 2,500 different books were challenges for censorship in schools and libraries in 2022, according to a study by the American Library Association (ALA) released this past week.
And while many politicians at the federal, state, and local levels are focused on banning books due to the advocacy of a small minority of parents, children are in full-blown crisis (and it isn’t because of their reading of award-winning Jodi Picoult books or learning about the history of Ruby Bridges and school integration).
The real crisis, according to new analysis of U.S. mortality rates of children and adolescents, is that:
Between 2019 and 2020, the all-cause mortality rate for ages 1 to 19 years increased by 10.7%, and it increased by an additional 8.3% between 2020 and 2021.
These are astounding and tragic numbers.
After decades of progress in reducing child mortality, children are now dying at higher rates from a variety of causes but particularly guns.
The authors, Steven H. Woolf, Elizabeth R. Wolf, and Frederick P. Rivara, of the study explain:
Suicides among individuals aged 10 to 19 years began to increase in 2007, and homicide rates in this age group began increasing in 2013. Between these nadirs and 2019, the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic, mortality rates for suicide increased by 69.5% and homicide rates increased by 32.7%. Likely contributors to both trends include increased access to firearms and a deepening mental health crisis among children and adolescents. Access to opioids (e.g., fentanyl) also increased, and overdose death rates for individuals aged 10 to 19 years began increasing shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the pandemic did not initiate these trends, it may have poured fuel on the fire.
Moreover, book bans and censorship can be harmful to children. In many cases, they violate the fundamental rights of children and further marginalize kids, particularly when they deny children knowledge, understanding, representation, liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom to learn.
As Justice Abe Fortas wrote in his majority opinion in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (1969):
Students in school as well as out of school are “persons” under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. . . In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.
Justice Fortas adds:
It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.
In the Supreme Court case Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982), the Court ruled that children have a fundamental right to an education and access to learning that is not limited by the censorship of books based on “narrowly partisan or political” grounds. As Justice William Brennan writes:
Our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas. Thus, whether petitioners’ removal of books from their school libraries denied respondents their First Amendment rights depends upon the motivation behind petitioners’ actions. If petitioners intended by their removal decision to deny respondents access to ideas with which petitioners disagreed, and if this intent was the decisive factor in petitioners’ decisions, then petitioners have exercised their discretion in violation of the Constitution.
Parental engagement is important, but it should not diminish or undermine the fundamental rights of children. As Professor Joshua Weishart explains:
To be sure, supportive parents can be highly influential in a child’s educational success as well. But to the extent that the law empowers parents in public schooling, it does so to complement — not displace — their children’s educational freedoms.
If politicians really wanted to help children, they would facilitate parental and community engagement in schools and promote the ability of students to access much needed supports and assistance, such as school-based health services, school counselors, school psychologists, school nurses, athletic trainers, etc.
H.Res. 219 by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) would have achieved these goals, but sadly, it was defeated by the House of Representatives by a vote of 203–223.
Children need to have access to services that help them address trauma, mental health and behavioral health challenges, etc., but sadly, H.R. 5 would impose greater barriers, including new federal parental consent requirements. This would be required for even basic health services like checking for a fever, ankle strains, etc. The consequence, as the First Focus Campaign for Children’s letter in opposition to H.R. 5 points out is that children would:
. . . languish or must wait while school personnel spend large amounts of time trying to track down parents for consent.
How does this help children. . .or parents for that matter?
Most parents would want their children to see a school nurse if they are having an asthma attack or feeling sick, see the athletic trainer if their kid sprains an ankle or might have a concussion, or talk to a school counselor, psychologist, or nurse about mental health care needs without delay. H.R. 5 implies that schools would need to get parental consent for each and every health evaluation or screening. This imposes barriers to health care for kids.
Our children need more — not less — access to health care services and supports.
Furthermore, H.R. 5 guts student privacy and confidentiality. As Abigail English and Dr. Carol Ford explain in The Journal of Pediatrics, confidentiality and privacy is critically important to many adolescents:
Decades of research findings have documented the ways in which privacy concerns influence adolescents’ willingness to seek healthcare, where and when they seek care, and how candid they are with their healthcare providers. In the absence of confidentiality protections, some adolescents forego care entirely, some delay care or avoid visiting providers they perceive as not assuring confidentiality, and some limit the information they are willing to disclose.
The authors highlight an important reality:
Not all adolescents have parents who are available, willing, and able to communicate with them about sensitive issues, and not all adolescents are willing to share information about all sensitive health issues with their parents. In this context, confidential consultation with a healthcare provider can play an essential role. Eliciting candid information about adolescent concerns, health behaviors, and symptoms clearly increases clinicians’ opportunities to address concerns, provide evidence-based prevention and risk-reduction counseling, and ensure timely diagnosis and treatment.
H.R. 5 appears to undermine the affirmative rights of young people to seek out health care services for suicide prevention, mental health, substance abuse, asthma, infectious diseases, concussions, or other health care services without schools first obtaining written parental consent. Again, this can have potentially tragic consequences.
And it can also be horribly insensitive to the needs of children.
Furthermore, with respect to the health and safety of children, politicians continue to refuse to address the need for improved gun safety, which is now the leading cause of death among children. According to Kaiser Family Foundation:
Not only does the U.S. have by far the highest overall firearm death rate among children, the U.S. also has the highest rates of each type of child firearm deaths — suicides, assaults, and accident or undetermined intent — among similarly large and wealthy countries.
Congress has also failed to extend the improved Child Tax Credit and allowed it to expire at the end of 2021. This failure has caused 3 million children to fail back into poverty, which negatively impacts every aspect of the lives of children — their education, health, nutrition and hunger, homelessness, and even rates of child abuse and neglect.
And finally, other problems facing children are being compounded by politicians who are actively marginalizing children. As an example, there are a growing number of hostile legislative proposals directed at LGBTQ students that are contributing to their harassment and stress. It is abusive.
Instead, our children need adults to listen and truly hear them — not to continue ignoring their needs and concerns, or worse, actively targeting them for harm.
Last, if proponents of H.R. 5 truly believe that the only people we should be listening to about education is parents, then let’s understand what they are saying (Spoiler Alert: it isn’t a call for book bans nor a desire to file unlimited public records requests for the personnel and personal files of teachers, which H.R. 5 promotes at potential extensive costs to schools).
A May 2022 poll by Lake Research Partners found that parents believe “policy involving children should always be governed by a ‘best interest of the child’ standard (77–11%). When it comes to investing in children, 9-in-10 voters (90–7%) agree that “investing in children helps improve their lives, development, and outcomes.”
Specifically, parents overwhelmingly believe the federal government spends too little rather than too much on reducing child hunger (65–5% overall and mothers at a near unanimous 68–1%). Parents also believe we are spending too little rather than too much on public education (60–19%), early childhood education (63–9% overall and 67–8% among mothers), assistance for child care expenses (61–11% overall and 70–8% among mothers), accessing mental health services (64–14%), preventing gun violence (52–10%), reducing child poverty (67–16%), child homelessness (69–13%), and child abuse and neglect (67–10% overall and 76–6% among mothers).
H.R. 5 does the opposite. The legislation provides no funding for education, and instead, diverts resources, time, and attention from the education of students in public schools in favor of more administrative and bureaucratic reporting requirements. This fails kids.
Moreover, in a February 2023 Global Strategy Group poll, American voters express opposition to the education agenda that is being pushed by some members of Congress and state-level politicians, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, that seeks to ban books, impose speech codes upon teachers, ban transgender-focused health care options, and impose greater censorship and micromanagement of education curriculum upon public schools.
In fact, a CBS News/YouGov poll found overwhelming opposition to the banning of books for “criticizing U.S. history” (17% yes, 83% no), “political ideas you disagree with” (15–85%), “depicting slavery” (13–87%), and “discussing race” (13–87%).
Children desperately need our attention, and that attention demands that we listen to their needs and concerns and respect their best interests and fundamental human rights, which include their right to education, health care, and the protection from abuse, violence, and discrimination.
And last, in case it really needs to be said, some solutions for children would be to fully fund our public schools, expand access to health care, prevent gun violence, cut child poverty, and increase access to child nutrition.
Children do not need an agenda that undermines public education, fails to address rising child mortality, and promotes child labor.