Legislative tinkering a distraction on sex-ed

The Indiana House Education Committee made an atrocious sex-education bill considerably less awful Tuesday. Now Senate Bill 65 is just a bad, unnecessary bill, and it still deserves to be rejected.

But the push-and-pull by legislators is distracting from something more important: Hoosier children and youth have a right to age-appropriate, accurate information about sexuality. And if it doesn’t start in school, they may have to fend for themselves, sometimes with bad results.

Statehouse“I wish health education would be comprehensive, K-12, and that sexuality would be part of that,” said Catherine Sherwood-Laughlin, clinical professor in the Indiana University Bloomington-School of Public Health. “Sexuality education is a sensitive topic, and it can be difficult to teach and talk about. But it’s also important and should be part of the overall health curriculum.”

As approved by the Senate, SB 65 would bar public schools from teaching sexuality education to students unless their parents consent in writing. A House amendment changed the consent procedure. Schools would twice send parents a consent form. If parents don’t respond after they second time, the students can be included in sexuality education classes.

Sherwood-Laughlin teaches college students how to teach sexuality education. She also works with the School of Public Health, IU Health’s Positive-Link program and the Indiana Department of Education to teach sexuality education in schools and provide training for teachers.

Her approach is anchored in the National Sexuality Education Standards, comprehensive standards for developmentally appropriate information that that children should learn as they progress through elementary, middle and high school.

Advocates for SB 65 pushed the bill with scare tactics declaring that children would be taught about sexual activity in kindergarten. “Well, we don’t do that,” Sherwood-Laughlin said.

The standards are staged so students learn more as they are able to understand more. By the end of second grade, for example, they should know correct names for body parts, understand that living things reproduce (dogs have puppies and cats have kittens) and learn how to walk away from physical contact that makes them uncomfortable.

As students get older, the standards get more advanced, but gradually. By the end of fifth grade, they include being able to describe reproductive systems, explain puberty and know about physical attraction. By the end of eighth grade, they include understanding pregnancy, the spread of HIV and STDs, the use of condoms and the meaning of sexual abstinence.

There’s an emphasis on identifying trustworthy adults, treating peers with respect and avoiding bullying. Authors of the standards say research finds that students who take part in comprehensive sexuality education are likely to delay the onset of sexual activity, will have fewer sexual partners and are much less likely to become pregnant as teens.

Indiana law requires schools that teach sexuality education to instruct students that abstinence is the “expected standard” and the only sure-fire way to prevent pregnancy and STDs. Studies have shown that abstinence-only approaches are not effective. But Sherwood-Laughlin doesn’t see the mandate as a problem.

“I’ve heard teachers say they can only teach abstinence,” she said. “But the law says you have to teach it but not that it’s all you can teach. It doesn’t say you can’t teach about birth control, contraception and where they can get help in the community from health-care providers.”

Critics of school-based sexuality education also argue it’s a subject that parents should teach in ways that reflect their own family values. Sherwood-Laughlin said that parents should be teaching values around sexuality, but school-based programs can facilitate those conversations. And while some parents may think their children aren’t ready to talk about sex, the kids probably think otherwise.

“The kids in the classroom are driving these conversations,” Sherwood-Laughlin said. “While the adults may not want to have them, the kids are having these conversations and we need to be part of that.”

SB 65 is now eligible for more amendments on the House floor. If the House approves the bill, a conference committee will work out differences between the versions.

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