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Several States Introduce Legislation Related to Sexuality Education

As states begin their 2005 legislative sessions, several state legislatures will consider bills that would impact sexuality education and abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in their states. Proposed legislation across the county includes efforts to define and require medical accuracy, clarify or change how parents/guardians are notified about sexuality education in their children's schools, and mandate comprehensive sexuality education or abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

Expanding Sexuality Education
In New Jersey, Assembly Bill 787 would require each board of education in the state to offer comprehensive family life education. A.B. 787 defines family life education as "education regarding human development and sexuality, including education on family planning and sexually transmitted diseases, that is medically accurate and age-appropriate; respects community values and encourages parental communication; promotes responsible sexual behavior and addresses both abstinence and the use of contraception; promotes individual responsibility and involvement regarding sexuality; and teaches skills for responsible decision-making regarding sexuality." This legislation would also repeal the current New Jersey law requiring that all sexuality education classes stress that abstinence is the only completely reliable means of eliminating STDs and avoiding unintended pregnancies. This bill has been assigned to the Assembly Committee on Education.

Also in New Jersey, Assembly Bill 1525 would require that instruction on parenting, including responsibilities and obligations, be included in any family life education course. This bill was referred to the Assembly Committee on Education. In Utah, House Bill 72 would modify the state Board of Education's health education curricula requirements to include information on the prevention of HIV/AIDS. The bill is currently in the House Committee on Rules.

In Washington state, legislation was introduced in both the House and the Senate that would require all school districts offering sexual health education to incorporate Washington's Department of Health (DOH) and Office of the Superintendent of Public School (OSPI)'s guidelines for sexual health information into their instruction. This legislation, House Bill 1282 and Senate Bill 5306, would also mandate that sexuality education emphasize abstinence, but not to the exclusion of other methods of prevention and that it must be "medically accurate information about the effectiveness of contraceptives and other family planning options in a comprehensive manner." DOH is charged with adopting rules to determine what is medically accurate.

This legislation also states that "instruction and materials shall be age-appropriate and appropriate for use with students of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and ethnic and cultural backgrounds and students with disabilities." Both bills were introduced in January 2005 and referred to respective Committees on Health Care.

Requiring Medical Accuracy
In fact, legislation that would require medical accuracy in all health and sexuality education classes has been introduced in several states this year. In Arizona, Senate Bill 1077 would require all sex education curricula used in Arizona to be medically accurate. This legislation defines medically accurate as "supported by the weight of the research conducted in compliance with accepted scientific methods, recognized as accurate and objective by leading professional organizations and agencies with relevant expertise in the field, and published in peer-reviewed journals, if appropriate." S.B. 1077 was introduced in January 2005 and referred to the Senate Committee on Education K-12 and the Senate Committee on Rules.

Similar legislation was also introduced in January 2005 in Hawaii. House Bill 483 and Senate Bill 286 would require any recipient of state funding that provides sex education, family planning information, pregnancy counseling, or information about STDs to use medically accurate, factually based information. According to this proposed bills, this information must include information about abstinence and contraception. The bills define medical accuracy as "verified or supported by research conducted in compliance with scientific methods and published in peer-reviewed journals, where appropriate, and recognized as accurate and objective by professional organizations and agencies with expertise in the relevant fields, such as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists."

Similar legislation was also introduced in South Dakota in January 2005. Senate Bill 166 would require that all school districts that provide health education ensure that the information is "factual and medically accurate and objective." Medically accurate and objective are defined as "verified or supported by research conducted in compliance with scientific methods and published in peer-reviewed journals, if appropriate, and recognized as accurate and objective by leading professional medical organizations and agencies with expertise in the relevant fields." S.B. 166 is currently in the Senate Committee on Education.

Promoting an Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Approach
Opponents of comprehensive approaches to sexuality education, however, remain undaunted and continue to introduce legislation that could ultimately be damaging to the health and well being of young people. For example, New Hampshire House Bill 39, introduced in January 2005, would require all sex education classes to follow abstinence-only-until-marriage guidelines. Among other things, "course material and instruction shall teach honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage" and "course material and instruction shall stress that pupils should abstain from sexual intercourse until they are ready for marriage." The bill would also allow parents or guardians to remove their child with a note in writing. This is commonly known as an "opt-out" policy. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Education.

Creating New Parental Consent Rules
Other state legislatures are considering bills that would impact their state's statutes on parental notification and/or permission for sexuality education classes. In Arizona, House Bill 2430, introduced in January 2005 and referred to the House Committee on Education K-12 and the House Committee on Rules, would require any school that teaches sex education to receive written parental permission before a student may participate in any of this instruction. This is commonly referred to as an "opt-in" policy. Currently only three states have state-wide opt-in policies.

The bill would also prohibit sexuality from being discussed in any class except sex education, without prior school board approval. The bill sets a separate standard, however, for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which would not have to follow these policies.

In Connecticut, House Bill 5514, introduced in January 2005 and referred to the joint Committee on Education, would require school districts to notify any parent of a student who is eligible to participate in a family life program. Connecticut already allows parents to remove their children from sexuality education classes with written notification. This is commonly referred to as an "opt-out" policy.

In New Jersey, Assembly Bill 3806, introduced in January 2005 and referred to the Assembly Committee on Education, would excuse any student with "conflicts of conscience" from certain class requirements in public institutions of higher education. The enumerated classes are "health, family life education, or sexual education." Such a law already exists for students in public elementary or secondary schools.

Requiring Reviews
Finally, both Connecticut and Washington have pending legislation that calls for a review of the states' sexuality education programs. In Connecticut, lawmakers are considering legislation (Senate Bill 363) that would require school districts to review their sexuality education programs in order to guarantee that the program is comprehensive and includes, "abstinence, human development, relationships, sexual health, and sexually transmitted diseases." This legislation was introduced in January 2005 and referred to the joint Committee on Education.

Conclusion
With states just beginning their 2005 legislative sessions, there is a long way to go before any of the bills are signed into law. Last year, California and Michigan both passed legislation that greatly impacted sexuality education in their state. California's new law states that if a school teaches sexuality education, courses must be comprehensive. The law spells out what a program must include to be considered comprehensive and requires that such programs also be medically accurate. In contrast, Michigan's new law requires sexuality education classes to focus on an abstinence-only-until-marriage message. It also sets up a process by which parents can ask for changes in their school's sexuality education program and determines penalties for schools and school districts that do not respond to such inquiries.

These changes in California and Michigan and the wide range of legislation that has already been introduced this year, indicates that approaches to sexuality education continue to be debated in states and that legislation can have a profound impact on what young people learn.

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