By DEDE PAQUETTE
Wisconsin public school students may not know it, but their sex education classrooms are in the middle of a state-wide tug-of-war. Last year, the Legislature passed The Healthy Youth Act, requiring schools teaching abstinence-only programs to also teach about birth control methods. After Gov. Walker’s special legislative session on jobs in October, the Republican-controlled Senate passed Senate Bill 237 on Nov. 2, which removes these requirements and allows a return to abstinence-only programs.
In a press release by the new bill’s author, Mary Lazich said, “This takes the emphasis of human growth and development away from special interests and government mandates, and places it on ensuring students receive the necessary education to become healthy and productive members of society.” To become a law, however, the Republican-controlled Assembly must also pass it during its next session.
Last year’s law, The Healthy Youth Act, passed in February 2010, was designed to bring standardization to sex education classes statewide. This bill required schools to meet a series of content mandates, including a controversial requirement that all information presented in sex ed classes meet a strict definition of medical accuracy. To meet the definition, information had to be supported by the majority of researchers and be sanctioned by medical organizations such as the American Medical Association.
Another controversial mandate in The Healthy Youth Act required schools with sex education programs to provide information about contraceptives. Together, these requirements had the effect of banning abstinence-only curricula in the state.
Senate Bill 237, however, eliminates many requirements of the old law, including teaching about birth control. This new bill includes its own requirements, including the teaching of the skills for abstinence and parenting, the benefits of being married, and the pregnancy and childbirth process.
The new bill removes the requirement that information be supported by a majority of researchers and the approval of scientific organizations. In its place, the new bill requires that curricula be consistent with “community standards;” however, no definition for this term exists in the bill.
Kathy Block, high school health teacher, was surprised that the legislature had taken up this issue after its overhaul last year.
“We just finished updating from the big change last year,” she said. “We haven’t even been using the new curriculum for a whole year yet.”
She explained that her district had been teaching an abstinence-only curriculum for the past 15 years. When last year’s law passed, her district realigned the curriculum to include the required units on contraception. This change was not controversial in her district. Block said her students seemed comfortable talking about the topic.
“Students seem really glad for some of the information,” she said. “You can’t believe some of the wrong ideas they have about sex.”
Parents in Block’s district may opt their children out of the sex ed units. Block said only one or two of her school’s 1400 students opt out each year.
“Most parents want us to do it,” she said. “I think most parents assume we are doing it.”
Block’s assumption is verified by some parents in her district.
“I’m glad the school taught it,” said Kasey Fluet, parent of a former high school student. “We started talking to our daughter about sex when she was really young. We wanted her to have all the information she could get.”
Mark and Amy Youngquist, parents of twin eighth grade boys in the district, agree.
“Sticking my head in the sand isn’t going to help anything,” Mark said. His wife, Amy, said she wanted her boys to have accurate information, and was concerned that students may make a “life-changing decision” based on wrong information if they are relying on the Internet or rumors from friends.
“We talk about it at the kitchen table,” she said. “If some parents aren’t talking about it, and schools aren’t talking about it, kids won’t have the information they need.”
Those pushing for this bill, such as Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, may agree with the need for information about sexuality, but they disagree with the old law’s mandates on what information is presented.
“This is a bill predicated on the notion that parents, community members, and school district officials know better than Madison does about what is in the best interest of their students,” Appling said in a press release dated Oct. 19, praising the new bill.
The “community standards” language in the bill helps groups like Appling’s get a seat at the table in schools’ curriculum advisory meetings, where they will be able to recommend content they prefer. How school districts will make sure all voices in their communities are heard on this issue remains a question.
If the new bill passes the Assembly during its next session, the mandates of The Healthy Youth Act will be rolled back. Then, the tug-of-war over the content of sex education classes will move out of the state capitol and into school district meeting rooms around the state.