For the first time this legislative session, lawmakers in Nebraska heard a bill that would require all public schools to teach comprehensive sexuality education. Legislative Bill 192 seeks to mandate sexual health education that would teach, among other topics, “the benefits of and reasons for not engaging in sexual intercourse” as well as the “side effects, health benefits, effectiveness, safety, and proper use of all contraceptive methods approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA),” among other topics. The bill also requires all curriculum materials to be age-appropriate and medically accurate. A hearing for the bill was held on February 8, 2011, in the Senate Education Committee, but the bill has yet to come to a vote.
Introduced by state Senator Brenda Council (D—District 11), the legislation aims to address the high rates of sexually transmitted diseases among young people in the state. In 2008, Nebraska ranked 37th in reported cases of Chlamydia and 24th in reported cases of gonorrhea among young people ages 15–19. However, in Douglas County, which comprises the Omaha metropolitan area, these rates are 50 percent higher than the national rate among the same age group. In her opening remarks during the committee hearing, Senator Council commented, “After learning of the concerns around the number of sexually transmitted diseases [in Nebraska], I began meeting with professionals and other concerned citizens who were meeting to discuss what actions could be taken to address this trend. And what I heard when I attend those meetings was education, education, education.”
Under the legislation, instruction would discuss sexual activity “as it relates to risk for sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy” and “encourage youth to communicate with parents or guardians and other trusted adults about sexuality.” Moreover, the legislation would require instruction and curriculum materials to be appropriate for use with “students of any race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic or cultural background, and gender identity, sexually active students, and students with disabilities.” The bill also includes an opt-out provision for parents and guardians. If passed, the legislation would take effect for the 2012–13 school year.
Nebraska state law does not regulate sexuality education provided in schools or prohibit schools from teaching such topics. However, the state maintains a de facto abstinence-only policy for instruction provided in schools. The State Board of Education supports “an abstinence approach to risk behaviors associated with . . . sexual activity,” and the Nebraska Health Education Frameworks—the state’s health education guidelines—declare that all “state monies shall be dedicated to abstinence programs.” Currently, Omaha and Lincoln school districts offer comprehensive sex education. During the hearing Senator Council stated that the intent of the bill was to ensure that sex education would be standardized across the state, providing young people with universal instruction regardless of location. The legislation does not propose a specific curriculum for use, but instead would allow individual school districts to select from an approved list of curricula that meet the criteria of the law.
During the committee hearing, 12 individuals testified in support of the bill, including medical and public health professionals, parents, students, educators, and community advocates. At issue during the hearing was the concern that teaching students comprehensive sexuality education would make young people more prone to engaging in early sexual activity. Several testifiers cited studies showing that teaching comprehensive sex education does not hasten sexual debut, but instead helps students to delay sexual initiation for a longer period of time than those students who did not receive comprehensive sex education.
Another concern raised was that the legislation would impede upon local control and the wishes of parents. However, proponents of the bill referenced a recent statewide poll conducted in September 2010 that found that an overwhelming majority of Iowa voters supported providing young people with “information to protect themselves from unplanned pregnancies and STIs [sexually transmitted infections].” Additionally the poll showed that nearly two-thirds supported requiring all schools to teach sexuality education. What’s more, exactly two-thirds believed that sex education curricula provided in schools “should include information about contraceptives, abstinence, and STIs.” One testifier asserted that the same support for sex education could be found in Nebraska.
Moreover, several bill proponents stated that parents do not feel equipped to talk to their kids about sex. “Every time, in every venue, with every [education] level parent group I speak with, they are surprised at what they need to be saying to their kids. . . . So many of these same parents [from whom] I keep hearing, ‘it’s the parents’ responsibility,’ the parents don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to do it,” said Valda Boyd Ford, coordinator of the Douglas County STI Initiative. Bill proponents stated that parents were crucial to imparting young people with the values and expectations they held about sex; and were a key and necessary partner for any sex education initiative taking place in schools.
Finally, opponents of the bill accused the legislation of not placing enough emphasis on abstinence education; Senator Council argued that this viewpoint was misinformed. “The bill does not set out any time periods or allocate amounts of instruction per subject area,” she noted. “So the suggestion that abstinence would be given short shrift while [there] would be concentrations on the other aspects of prevention and protection, I just don’t know where that comes from, because there’s nothing in the bill to suggest that.”
Despite such criticism, the overwhelming majority of individuals who gave testimony supported the bill and argued that the legislation was needed to combat the misinformation and sexual health epidemic impacting Nebraska’s youth. “Our kids are getting an education. They get it from television shows, movies, ads, music, and from their uneducated peers,” stated Susan Goodman of the Family Planning Council of Nebraska during the hearting. “It is incumbent upon us to provide them with the truth about sex. The development about their bodies, the hormonal changes that occur, and that abstinence is, of course, the utmost best 100 percent option for avoiding disease and pregnancy. But we need to give them information on how to best protect themselves if they do decide to engage in sex, the skills to talk with their parents, and the confidence to stand up to peer pressure. To do less than this is doing a disservice to our youth.”
Nebraska State Profile, SIECUS State Profiles, Fiscal Year 2009 edition (Washington, DC: SIECUS, June 2010), accessed 28 February 2011, <http://www.siecus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.ViewPage&PageID=1231#_ednref17>.
Testimony of Valda Boyd Ford, Coordinator of the Douglas County STI Initiative, Transcript of the Nebraska State Legislature House Education Committee Hearing, 8 February 2011, accessed 28 February 2011, <http://www.legislature.ne.gov/FloorDocs/Current/PDF/Transcripts/Education/2011-02-08.pdf>, 64.
Transcript of the Nebraska State Legislature House Education Committee Hearing, 8 February 2011, accessed 28 February 2011, <http://www.legislature.ne.gov/FloorDocs/Current/PDF/Transcripts/Education/2011-02-08.pdf>, 57.
Nebraska Legislative Bill 192, Nebraska State Legislature, 102nd Legislative Session, introduced 7 January 2011, accessed 28 February 2011, <http://nebraskalegislature.gov/FloorDocs/Current/PDF/Intro/LB192.pdf>.
Transcript of the Nebraska State Legislature House Education Committee Hearing, 59.
Ibid., 69, 77, 79, 80.
Anzalone Liszt Research, Summary of Statewide Polling in Iowa, 3 September 2010, accessed 28 February 2011, <http://www.plannedparenthood.org/files/SUMMARY_--_IOWA_STATEWIDE_POLLING.pdf>.
Transcript of the Nebraska State Legislature House Education Committee Hearing, 89.
Ibid., 81, 94.