Sex ed bill draws heated debate, but its potential impact remains vague

With weeks left in the 2019 legislative session, one question senators have to decide is whether or not to take up a bill to create a more restrictive policy for sex education in Idaho schools.

House Bill 120, sponsored by Republican Idaho Falls Rep. Barbara Ehardt, would require parents to sign their permission before their children receive any sort of “instruction or presentation regarding sexuality” or sex education in school.

Rep. Barbara Ehardt discusses her opt-in sex education bill in the Idaho House of Representatives.

To be clear, Idaho parents can already decide whether or not their children receive this instruction. The current law requires schools that teach sex ed to give parents an opportunity to opt out of the lessons.

This new bill would flip that process, making Idaho one of only a handful of states in the nation to require parental permission for sex education, instead of allowing parental excusal.

The bill’s supporters say the new requirement would ensure parents have control over what their kids are learning. But opponents worry that the bill’s vague language and the opt-in process would be a burden on schools and could create additional barriers to sex education for at-risk youth.

The legislation has passed Idaho’s House of Representatives on a party line-vote — 56 Republicans voting for it, and 14  Democrats against.

If the Senate and governor also approve, what would that mean for Idaho students?

What ‘sex education’ do Idaho students receive?

State law leaves it up to school districts to decide whether or not to teach sex education.

The State Department of Education has a set of health content standards that students are supposed to learn, which include some topics such as sexually transmitted disease awareness and “healthy relationships and sexuality.”

The standards stress “encouragement of abstinence from sexual activity,” and “factual, medically accurate, and objective” information at all levels of education.

School districts “need to teach to the standards,” SDE spokeswoman Kris Rodine said, but districts decide how to teach those standards and they don’t have to submit their curriculum choices to the state.

“The assumption is that whatever they adopt meets the standards,” Rodine said.

Those standards include topics such as puberty, STDs and pregnancy prevention.

The specifics of how health and sex ed are taught look different depending on where a student is enrolled.

In the Parma School District, fifth-grade students watch a one-hour video on puberty and parents are given a chance to opt their students out, superintendent Jim Norton said.

Students in eighth grade and at the high school level take a combined health and P.E. class. Norton says the topics in the health class follow state standards and are abstinence-based.

In the Bonneville School District, curriculum director Jason Lords said fifth-grade students are invited to watch a video after school. Parents are invited to screen the video beforehand, and if they don’t want their child to see it, they don’t come to the viewing.

“It’s all opt-in,” Lords said of the video.

At the middle and high school level, Lords said teachers focus on abstinence, and  “they would probably not spend a ton of time on STD and HIV just because of the stigma with teaching that content.”

Practical concerns

Neither Lords or Norton are in favor of the opt-in bill, largely because of its ambiguity.

They join a strong showing of educators who have come out opposed to the legislation as written. That list includes the Idaho Education Association and the Idaho School Boards Association, which opposes the bill “on the grounds that it is overly vague, will create barriers to important sex education classes and could be burdensome to teachers and administrators.”

The Bonneville and Parma administrators point to language in the bill that requires written parental permission for “any instruction or presentation regarding sexuality,” without clarifying what “sexuality” means in that context.

Norton wonders if that includes high school biology courses. Lords wonders if this includes history classes on ancient Greece or Rome that might include historical artwork of nude people.

“I just think it opens the door to a number of issues that could be interpreted in different ways by different people,” Norton said.

When asked about the bill’s language in a February committee hearing, Ehardt said the bill was written to be broad enough to capture sex-related education not just in health class, but “in the many different places this subject matter tends to be taught.”

“As far as sexuality, it’s one of those interesting definitions,” Ehardt said. “…It’s hard to describe it, but you know it when you see it.”

She said it would include things such as human development, education on pregnancy, family planning, sexually transmitted diseases and situations involving the act of sex.

Ehardt’s bill doesn’t include this definition.

For comparison, Utah’s law is far more explicit about things a parent is required to “opt-in” to, including discussions or instruction on sexual abstinence, anatomy, pregnancy, contraception and human sexuality.

(Click here to read Utah’s 2018 Sex Education Parent Consent Form.)

Jodi Kaufman, the health and physical education specialist for the Utah State Board of Education said her state does not collect statewide data on the number of students who opt-in to sex ed. But from what she’s seen, the vast majority of parents chose to allow their kids to take sex education instruction.

“Even in our most conservative areas, most parents opt their children in,” Kaufman said.

Teen sexual health in Idaho

It’s hard to say how “opt-in” policies might impact the number of Idaho kids who would receive sex education.

In fact, it’s hard to say how many kids in Idaho are actually learning about sexual health right now. The state does not keep data on the number of students who opt out of sex education, Rodine said.

While opt-in and opt-out data are hard to come by, data on teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases shines some light on the state of teen sexual health in Idaho.

When it comes to teen pregnancy, Idaho fares moderately. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Health and Human services said Idaho had the 25th highest teen birth rate in the country.

Some, but not all, of the opt-in states had more teen births that year. Nevada and Arizona had the 13th and 15th highest teen birth rates, respectively. But Utah, another Western opt-in state, had a much lower teen birth rate and ranked 38th in teen births in 2015.

Another indicator of teen sexual activity in the state is the rate of sexually transmitted diseases.

Rates for some sexually transmitted diseases, including gonorrhea and chlamydia, have been climbing over the past two decades, according to Idaho Department of Health and Welfare data.

In 2017, STDs among teenagers made up only a small share of the reports statewide, with the exception of chlamydia. Roughly 30 percent of all chlamydia cases in 2017 were reported among the 15- to 19-year-old age group, more than 1,800 cases in total.

Scott Nedrow, an Idaho Falls parent, thinks one way to combat STD and teen pregnancy rates is to make sex education accessible for students in schools.

The parent of 5-year-old twins and an 8-year-old, Nedrow is not in favor of the “opt-in” bill.

“This is cover for trying to remove any sex education at all,” Nedrow told EdNews. “…I’m concerned that it will promote risky behavior, more STDs, more pregnancies.”

Many parents, including some in the Statehouse, sway the other way.

Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, stood during last week’s floor debate to voice her support for the opt-in bill.

She pointed out that she already has to give permission for a number of things at her children’s school, from Internet use to sports. In her district, she said, it is “very simple” to walk through the opt-in process.

“This subject is a very emotional and very personal subject,” Nichols said. “As a parent I want to be able to exercise the rights as to what my children are learning, what they’re being able to do in their schools.”

Sami Edge

Sami Edge

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