The word “groomer” has become a slur

Gerald Ott of Ankeny was a high school English teacher and for 30 years a school improvement consultant for the Iowa State Education Association.

Want to be called a “groomer”? Try reading a library book like Teach Her a Lesson, a new thriller by attorney Kate Flora. Flora “peels back the horror of a teacher being falsely accused by a student of initiating a long-standing sexual relationship.” So says reviewer Frank O Smith. It would seem a book only for teachers and parents, but it’s not. It could easily and appropriately find its way into a school library (excerpt). I hope it does.

Or try recommending The Passing Playbook on a public Facebook page. It’s a new young adult novel by Isaac Fitzsimmons (excerpt). Book reviewer Alaina Leary says Fitzsimmons explores privilege, identity, the complicated relationships we create through family and friends, and discovering the potential our voices have with charm and passion. 

“Teens everywhere will love this one,” says one review. Meaning Moms for Liberty would likely hate it. Says Leary, “It’s about fifteen-year-old Spencer Harris, a proud nerd, an awesome big brother, and a David Beckham (British soccer champion) in training. He’s also transgender.”

Hands down, the term “groomer” has become a slur, as foul as the “N” word or “f*g.” Its frequent use, as an insult, is often meant to imply teachers are potential sex offenders. Ironically, House File 2056 would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work unsupervised in child care centers while caring for children under age 5.

The misnomer “groomer” derives from the religious right’s neurosis that a novel, a storybook about a youngster grappling with her own feelings of identity or sexual orientation, is dangerous — that assigning a story or placing it in a school library shows a teacher’s intent to exploit. The slur frequents itself on social media whenever malcontents take to the Internet to demean a defender of LGBTQ, or books or lessons, or transgender participation in school sports, or use of bathrooms.

Imagine a third grader coming home from school and telling her mother, “Mrs. Grey called me ‘Honey’ today.” Mom asks her daughter if Mrs. Grey touched her. Daughter says, “She helped me with my snowsuit and touched my leg.” And so it starts.

Among the hundreds of bills introduced this year is House Study Bill 568. This bill newly includes behavior termed “grooming” in an otherwise good Iowa law. Althea Cole, a conservative columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, recently observed that state law already requires schools and Area Education Agencies to report to the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners any disciplinary action taken against a school employee for certain reasons, including sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. So why add the unnecessary, confusing, and potentially career damaging new words?

The Senate version of the bill (Senate Study Bill 3042) reads in part (words in bold would be added to existing law):

The board of directors of a school district or area education agency, the superintendent of a school district, the chief administrator of an area education agency, and the authorities in charge of an accredited nonpublic school shall report to the board the non-renewal or termination, for reasons of alleged or actual misconduct, of a person’s contract executed under sections 279.12 (et al), and the resignation of a person who holds a license, certificate, or authorization issued by the board as a result of or following an incident or allegation of misconduct that, if proven, would constitute a violation of the rules adopted by the board to implement section 256.146, subsection 13, paragraph “b”, subparagraph (1); soliciting, encouraging, or consummating a romantic or physical relationship with a student, grooming behavior toward a student, or an otherwise inappropriate relationship with a student; falsifying student grades, test scores, or other official information or material; or converting public property or funds to the personal use of the school employee; or abusing a student, when the board or reporting official has a good faith belief that t he incident occurred or the allegation is true.

Let’s be frank. The exploitive behavior is already covered by laws. It’s well known among teachers what’s wrong, abusive, and likely to start a firestorm or get them arrested. The instances of abuse are so infrequent that any accusation becomes front-page news, sensationalized, and the teacher gets suspended during a trying investigation that trashes her career before the facts are known.

Adding redundancy to a law by specifying a particular behavior does not improve the law. The authors know the word is a spark plug and can open opportunities for religious zealots to malign a teacher, or for moms and dads for/against this-or-that to casually identify normal teacher-student interactions as misbehavior.

Tom Barton reported on the House subcommittee that considered this bill, quoting one educator as saying the bill could have a “chilling effect” on teachers. It’s worth noting that two groups representing educators, which are occasionally at odds with each other (the Iowa State Education Association and Professional Educators of Iowa), share concerns about this bill.

The Senate version is simply an epilogue to last year’s wrong-headed education law known as Senate File 496. Two provisions of that law, which called for removing library books and restricted teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation, are now blocked by federal court order. Teachers are well used to “chilling,” but there’s a red line.

Many of us remember when Governor Terry Branstad returned to office in 2011, after his eminent advisor Marvin Pomerantz (RIP) had passed away. The recycled governor teamed up with the marginally prepared Kim Reynolds (she finished her BA online while lieutenant governor) — and the state became a mosh pit in service of the religious right and the 21st-century version of the John Birch Society, the billionaire Koch Brothers network, the Americans for Prosperity. These “grooming behavior” bills are part of those trends.

As chilling as the “grooming bill” is, a bill was also introduced this year to remove gender identity as a protected class under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. House File 2082 would redefine gender dysphoria as a disability for the purposes of the civil rights law. Laura Belin wrote much more about this in Bleeding Heartland. One day after a House subcommittee killed that bill, Governor Reynolds’ office introduced another legislative attack on LGBTQ Iowans.

Republican State Representatives Brooke Boden and Bill Gustoff advanced House Study Bill 568 from a subcommittee, sending the bill to the full House Education Committee. Iowa Department of Education officials told the Cedar Rapids Gazette “their language came from an unnamed national organization of professionals that deal with teacher licensure.” No matter, of course, that it would be redundant to existing law or the “unnamed org” could be another red state, or the Koch-funded The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, or the Cato Institute.

To repeat myself. This bill implies every teacher is a potential groomer, subject to accusations that require a teacher to defend herself or himself against spurious claims. Read Teach Her a Lesson. In the current environment, where moms against this-or-that have gained a foothold, it’s bait for malicious complaints, like Moms for Liberty and their book bans, becoming an everyday occurrence.

Who would want to subject herself or himself to this kind of slanderous abuse? If I were a member of the state’s teaching force, I’d see this as an absolute red line. If passed, weekends for me would extend through “blue” Mondays until all 30,000 Iowa teachers are sheltered from this “big chill.”

UPDATE by Laura Belin: On February 8, the Iowa House Education Committee advanced House Study Bill 568 with an amendment that defined “grooming” more precisely. The Democrats on the committee concluded the amendment cleared up problems with the bill, and joined Republicans in moving it to the House floor.

Top image of teacher with students is by BearFotos, available via Shutterstock.

About the Author(s)

Gerald Ott

  • sure they're calling us pedophiles and or pedophile enablers

    they see homosexuality/queerness as being the same as pedophilia, remember when the Catholic Church was finally being dragged into courts for their actual abuses (and coverups of) of children and they responded by blaming closeted gay clergy (and a supposed subculture of homosexuality) and started various witch hunts along these lines that continue until today, well like that