This fall, a Colorado high school teacher opened his “Music Literature” class with a sexually explicit lesson that involved sexual violence, instructing students to write expletives, and playing a suggestive song about teenagers taking off their clothes. This traumatized one of his 16-year-old students, who complained to her parents. They, in turn, reached out to First Liberty, a religious freedom law firm.
“My hope is that we don’t have to resort to a lawsuit,” Jeremy Dys, Special Counsel for Litigation and Communications at First Liberty, told PJ Media on Tuesday. He said his clients, Brett Cason and his daughter Skylar, want “the school district just to follow their policies which they’ve ignored so far.” The Steamboat Springs School District’s (SSSD) policies allow teachers to teach controversial issues so long as they get approval from the school administration and parents. Parents were not even notified before this lesson, however.
“They’ve violated not only the parental rights of the Cason family but also their religious liberty rights and especially the religious conscience of their daughter Skylar,” Dys argued.
First Liberty sent a letter to SSSD Superintendent Brad Meeks outlining the Casons’ complaint.
According to the letter, the teacher, Ryan Ayala, chose to open his “Music Literature” elective with the obscure and obscene poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. Once the subject of an obscenity trial, “Howl” includes many expletives, which were replaced with ellipses in the district-approved text. Ayala did not warn students or their parents about the obscene content ahead of time.
Ayala read every word out loud, including: words like “f*ck,” “a**,” “c*nt,” “c*ck;” descriptions of sexual violence against women; and vivid literary depictions of heterosexual and homosexual erotic acts. He then directed students to treat the ellipses in the text as a fill-in-the-blanks exercise. Female students like Skylar were asked to write “f*cked in the a**,” “c*nt,” and other lewd language.
At one point, Ayala asked the class to contemplate, in group discussion, what the phrase “granite c*ck” may have symbolized in Ginsberg’s poem. He concluded the “lesson” with an explanation of why he would make students read the book: he wanted to determine how mature his students would be about the content to follow.
“Skylar specifically recalls feeling violated, as if her skin were crawling, each of the numerous times her teacher vocalized the word, ‘c*ck.’ It pained her to be compelled to not only hear the words, but then pen the vulgarity letter-by-letter in her text,” the letter explains. “This overwhelmed Skylar with feelings of guilt and shame, as if her teacher had forcibly dredged out of her something precious and innocent that was never meant to be removed in the bright light of a high school classroom.” [Emphasis added]
After class, Skylar turned to her friend and wondered why they had been put through such an offensive exercise. “By the end of class, Skylar felt guilty. Never had she heard such language by a teacher or contemplated such violent, sexual situations in class, much less been required by an authority figure to focus her attention on such vulgarity by hearing, writing, and then seeing the previously removed words in the textbook.”
After the class, Ayala assigned homework. Students were to listen to a list of songs Ayala said related to the poem “Howl,” including “Psst, teenagers, take off you clo,” by the artist Car Seat Headrest. This song appears to glorify the idea of “sexting” and repeatedly asks a “teenager” to remove his or her clothes to send nude pictures to the singer who appears sexually aroused by this idea.
“Worse, the song appears to suggest that the singer has control over his subject in much the same way Harvey Weinstein and others controlled women through the use of sexual favors. The lyrics include, ‘Send me a letter, send me your glow/I got it bad now, I want your clothes/ Send me a picture, send me your glow/I got your soul now, I got your clothes,'” the letter explains.
“I don’t understand how anyone would try to defend this teacher’s actions, especially in the age of #MeToo, Harvey Weinstein, and the inappropriate relationships between teachers and students that have been reported on throughout the country,” Dys told PJ Media.
Dys traveled to Steamboat Springs and met with Skylar Cason himself. She described a climate of fear in the classroom following this sexually explicit “lesson.”
“What she’s also told me here recently is that other students in the class are scared to tell their parents what happened. They feel guilty for even having seen and heard what they’ve seen and heard,” he said.
When Brett Cason approached the principal, Kevin Taulman, the principal said the lesson “blindsided” him. Ayala later emailed Cason with an explanation and an apology. An SSSD committee later reviewed the materials and re-affirmed their use, making three recommendations: that the teacher should notify a principal in advance; that a teacher “may be required to obtain permission” from parents to teach controversial issues; and that students be “provided alternative assignments when feasible.”
According to SSSD’s Policy I-9E section III.D, the school district has a responsibility to “review the selection and objection rules with staff periodically” and to remind staff “that the right to object to materials is one granted by federal law.” First Liberty argues that “had administrators and staff been adequately trained on the procedure in teaching controversial materials or received more clear guidance from the SSSD Board concerning the same, as required by state and federal law, the Cason family would have suffered no harm.”
Therefore, the First Liberty letter made four demands: that Ayala issue a written apology to all parents and guardians of his students for failing to notify them or give an alternate assignment; that SSSD staff receive two hours of education on Policy I-9E; that all SSSD staff receive two hours of sensitivity training regarding parental rights; and that all SSSD staff receive two hours of sensitivity training concerning the protection of student religious liberty and conscience rights.
If the school district refuses, the Casons have two legal arguments: parental rights and Skylar’s religious freedom.
“Although school districts are given wide latitude in setting their curriculum, the Supreme Court of the United States has emphasized that such latitude may not run afoul of the rights of parents to direct the education of their children,” the letter explains.
“In presenting lewd content to Miss Cason and ignoring SSSD’s policies on teaching controversial materials, multiple school officials violated Miss Cason’s civil rights of religious liberty and rights of conscience. The Supreme Court of the United States extends ‘heightened concerns for protecting the freedom of conscience from subtle coercive pressure on elementary and secondary public schools,’ Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 592 (1992). Lee specifically disapproves of situations, as here, in which school officials leave students like Skylar with the only option of violating her religious convictions and ‘participating, with all that implies, or protesting.'”
These legal arguments should also bolster the cause of parental rights in many other cases.
Schools have pushed explicit sex education on children without parental notification or consent. They have exposed kids to radical, one-sided videos pushing the LGBT agenda. Psychologically-damaging gender propaganda has wreaked havoc on children. The assault on parental rights has hit hard on transgender issues, with a father in Canada being warned against calling his daughter a girl.
First Liberty is also right to warn about the threats to conscience rights. When girls like Skylar Cason are subjected to obscene sexual lessons, this “teaching” can scar them, leaving them with lasting guilt and insecurity.
The Steamboat Springs School District should agree to First Liberty’s demands, but these issues extend far beyond this case.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.