Seventh grade life sciences teacher Melyssa Ferro worked out a special code with one of her students last year, after the girl’s parents said they were uncomfortable with some of the curriculum in Ferro’s sex education unit. If the girl was feeling uncomfortable in class, all she had to do was raise her hand. Ferro would automatically tell the student she could go get a drink of water, without letting on that the girl wanted to step out of class for that segment of the conversation.
“I let her set the boundaries of her own interactions,” said Ferro, Idaho’s 2016 teacher of the year.
That’s a typical practice in Ferro’s class at Syringa Middle School, where she teaches a science-based sex education curriculum called FLASH. Students are encouraged to ask questions, protect their own and other people’s privacy, and pass on questions or topics that feel too private. Parents are invited to review the curriculum beforehand. And in order for a student to participate in the class at all, guardians have to sign a piece of paper giving their explicit permission. In other words, parents have to “opt-in.”
Idaho legislators are considering whether schools across the state should be required to adopt that approach, asking parents to “opt-in” to comprehensive sex education courses. Idaho already allows parents to “opt-out” of sex education if they’d like.
A bill before the State Senate, proposed by Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Barbara Ehardt, would maintain that “opt-out” option for basic discussions of the anatomy and physiology of sexual reproduction. But if lessons cover the topics of human sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity, parents would have to explicitly consent.
Proponents of the bill say it gives parents more control over the content their children are learning. Critics argue it could prevent children from learning essential information about sexual safety and healthy relationships, just because their parents forgot to sign a permission slip.
Ferro and fellow Syringa teacher Maggie Stover have required parents to opt-in for years, as required by Caldwell School District policy. The teachers have nearly 100 percent participation in their sex-ed units.
But Ferro shares concerns that demanding an opt-in process statewide could leave vulnerable students without access to sex education.
“We’ve had to work really hard to make this process go as smoothly as it does,” Ferro told EdNews in a 2020 interview. “In a traditional school district, where they’re not doing the things that we’re doing to build culture, there is going to be a high number of students who don’t have the opportunity to really receive this instruction.”
Ferro and Stover teach sex education as part of their life-science curriculum each spring. The timing gives teachers the entire fall term to build relationships with parents through parent-teacher conferences, calls, emails and in-person visits to students’ neighborhoods. Teachers have also spent years fine-tuning the paperwork they send to parents weeks before the sex-ed unit, inviting them to review the material.
Parents are welcome to look through the FLASH curriculum that the teachers use, and to ask questions about what will be covered and which parts of the material will be emphasized.
In 2020, Ferro taught three sections of sex ed. On the first day of the unit, she had two students who hadn’t turned in permission slips. By the second day, she had 100 percent participation.
Stover taught six sections. She had one student who didn’t participate because their parent never returned the signed form. In most cases, Ferro said, if a student doesn’t participate it’s because they didn’t get the paper signed, not because their parents voiced objections to the material.
Stover said parents rarely ask her questions about the material, so going through the opt-in process doesn’t take much time.
But with near-perfect attendance, Ferro sometimes questions if it’s worth the effort.
“It is getting to the point where you kind of wonder, ‘why do I have to be going through the hassle of getting all these signatures, and getting them checked off in the grade book, when I’m getting 100 percent anyway?'” Ferro said. “It’s kind of frustrating.”
Ferro hasn’t visited the Idaho Legislature to testify about Ehardt’s opt-in bill. If pushed to take a side, she told EdNews that she would probably speak against it.
Some of her student’s parents are uncomfortable broaching sex-education subjects with their students, she said, and others are busy working multiple jobs to make ends meet. If her students don’t get information from a reliable adult, she worries they’ll turn to questionable sources, like their friends, social media, or the internet instead.
“Students would be able to make better decisions about their bodies if they have facts to make those decisions with,” Ferro said. “Putting barriers in place that make it more difficult for all of our students to access this information is not in the best interest of Idaho students.”