North Dakota Legislature Reaches Compromise on Guidelines for Teaching Abstinence

Three weeks before the end of its legislative session, the North Dakota Legislative Assembly reached a compromise on a sex education bill that spurred opposing viewpoints from its two chambers. After almost three months of debate and a dozen meetings by members of the conference committee, the House and Senate both approved House Bill 1229 on April 26, 2011. The final version of the bill requires schools to dedicate a portion of sexual health instruction to teaching the benefits of abstinence.
 
North Dakota does not currently have a state law that governs sex education in schools. As a local-control state, North Dakota’s statute does not mandate that sexuality education be taught or regulate what topics can or cannot be discussed. In 2008, the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction published the North Dakota Health Content and Achievement Standards, which established benchmarks for health instruction at all grade levels, including instruction in human growth and development and sexual health. For example, in grade five, students are expected to be able to “describe changes that occur during puberty.” The standards address sexual behavior and disease prevention beginning in grades seven and eight.[1]
 
Introduced in the House in January 2011, HB 1229 sought to establish “abstinence-based concepts” for school health curricula. Among other education guidelines outlined, such “concepts” would have required teaching that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship within the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity” and that “sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”[2] In all, the guidelines for “abstinence-based concepts” included in the bill closely mirrored the federal eight-point definition for abstinence education passed into law under Section 510(b) of the Social Security Act. This language was stripped from the bill in the House Education Committee and the revised bill passed the full House on February 22, 2011.[3] The final version of the bill included only one sentence, which stated, “Beginning July 1, 2012, each school district shall ensure that its curriculum for health includes the exposure of students to abstinence-based concepts.”[4] The measure passed the House by a vote of 89–5.[5]
 
The bill passed the Senate Education Committee with an amendment to require both “public and nonpublic schools” to teach abstinence-based concepts.[6] However, during the floor debate, critics of the bill responded that the measure did not go far enough and would allow other concepts besides abstinence to be taught.[7] Senator Larry Luick (R–Wahpeton) offered an amendment on the floor to require each school district to teach abstinence education. The amendment mandated that each district’s health curriculum have “as its objective to teach the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity.” It required the curriculum to
 
1.      Explain why abstinence from sexual activity until marriage provides safety from sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, and other associated health issues;
 
2.      Teach how to reject sexual advances, including self-defense;
 
3.      Inform how drugs, alcohol, irresponsible use of social media, and peer pressure can negatively influence unhealthy sexual decisionmaking and lead to aggressive sexual behavior; and
 
4.      Explain the negative influences of the sex-saturated media that present teen sexual activity as an expected norm with few risks or negative consequences.[8]
 
“We can help form the hearts and minds of our young people for righteousness,” commented Senator Margaret Sitte (R–Bismarck) moments before the vote.[9] However, others opposed the amendment. “This is micromanagement from the state legislature,” stated Senator Connie Triplett (D–Grand Forks). In the end the Senate adopted the amendment and passed the bill 39–8.
 
The House refused to approve the Senate version of the bill and a conference committee was formed; however, after weeks of debate an agreement still could not be reached. Opponents in the House argued that guidelines for education should be determined at the local level while supporters in the Senate argued that it was necessary for the legislature to mandate certain guidelines in order to ensure that the instruction is taught. By the ninth unsuccessful meeting of the conference committee, the House replaced its three original committee appointees with three new representatives.[10]
 
On April 26 the committee approved a compromised bill. The one-sentence measure states, “Beginning July 1, 2012, each school district and nonpublic school shall ensure that the portion of its health curriculum which is related to sexual health includes instruction pertaining to the risks associated with adolescent sexual activity and the social, psychological, and physical health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity before and outside of marriage.” The bill now awaits signature from Governor Jack Dalrymple.
 
 


[1] North Dakota Health Content and Achievement Standards (Bismarck, ND: North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, 2008), accessed 29 April 2011, <http://www.dpi.state.nd.us/standard/content/health/health2008.pdf>, 16, 26.
[2] North Dakota Legislative Assembly, 2011 Legislative Session, House Bill 1229, as introduced in the House, 10 January 2011, accessed 29 April 2011, <http://www.legis.nd.gov/assembly/62-2011/documents/11-0467-01000.pdf>.
[3] North Dakota Legislative Assembly, 2011 Legislative Session, House Bill 1229, as amended by the House Education Committee, 17 February 2011, accessed 29 April 2011, <http://www.legis.nd.gov/assembly/62-2011/documents/11-0467-01001m.pdf>; North Dakota Legislative Assembly, 2011 Legislative Session, House Bill 1229, Measure Actions, accessed 29 April 2011, <http://www.legis.nd.gov/assembly/62-2011/bill-actions/ba1229.html>.
[4] North Dakota Legislative Assembly, 2011 Legislative Session, House Bill 1229, final version of the bill as passed the House, 22 February 2011, accessed 29 April 2011, <http://www.legis.nd.gov/assembly/62-2011/documents/11-0467-02000.pdf>.
[5] North Dakota Legislative Assembly, 2011 Legislative Session, House Bill 1229, Measure Actions, accessed 29 April 2011, <http://www.legis.nd.gov/assembly/62-2011/bill-actions/ba1229.html>.
[6] North Dakota Legislative Assembly, 2011 Legislative Session, House Bill 1229, version of the bill with Senate Education Committee mark-ups, 24 March 2011, accessed 29 April 2011, <http://www.legis.nd.gov/assembly/62-2011/documents/11-0467-02002m.pdf>.
[7] Associated Press, “‘Abstinence Only’ Sex Ed in ND Schools Approved,” WDAZ Television 8–GrandForks, 28 March 2011, accessed 13 June 2011, <http://www.wdaz.com/event/article/id/7465/publisher_ID/30/>.
[8] North Dakota Legislative Assembly, 2011 Legislative Session, House Bill 1229, version of the bill with Senate amendment by Sen. Luick, 28 March 2011, accessed 29 April 2011, <http://www.legis.nd.gov/assembly/62-2011/documents/11-0467-02004m.pdf>.
[9] Associated Press, “‘Abstinence Only’ Sex Ed in ND Schools Approved.”
[10] Teri Finneman, “Compromise Reached on Abstinence Bill,” The N.D. Capitol and Beyond blog, 26 April 2011, accessed 29 April 2011, <http://northdakota.areavoices.com/2011/04/26/compromise-reached-on-abstinence-bill/>.

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