Topeka The Kansas State Board of Education on Wednesday voted to require that students get their parents' permission before taking sex education.
The 6-4 vote by the board may make Kansas the first state in the nation to establish such a requirement.
And some on the board say they will go further and seek a requirement that sex education classes teach only that students should abstain from sex until marriage.
"I don't like the message that says we know you're going to have sex, so here's the safer way to do it," said board member Kathy Martin, a Republican from Clay Center.
The board's actions shocked sex education advocates.
"I'm frightened," said Debra Rukes, director of the Topeka YWCA teen pregnancy prevention program. "Our young people need this information."
Requiring parental permission, called an opt-in process, will mean that many students who need sex education will not get it because their parents will forget, or are too busy or uninvolved to sign the necessary form, Rukes said. Teachers and administrators say getting permission slips, even for simple field trips, is often a nightmare.
Most school districts, including Lawrence, use the opt-out policy, which means if parents don't want their child to attend sex education class, they can sign a form that takes the student out of the class.
How they voted
Those voting to mandate the use of opt-in, which requires that parents return a consent form allowing a student to participate in the sex education class, were Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, John Bacon, R-Olathe, Kathy Martin, R-Clay Center, Connie Morris, R-St. Francis, Iris Van Meter, R-Thayer, and Ken Willard, R-Hutchinson. Those opposed to requiring opt-in were Sue Gamble, R-Shawnee, Carol Rupe, R-Wichita, Bill Wagnon, D-Topeka, and Janet Waugh, D-Kansas City, Kan.
The state board's statewide opt-in requirement may be the only one of its kind in the country, according to Darrel Lang, a human sexuality and health consultant with the State Department of Education.
The new opt-in requirement takes effect immediately, but there won't be any enforcement, said David Awbrey, a spokesman for the department.
"There is no consequence or penalty," Awbrey said. "In government, you just play by the rules. It's the honor system."
But more regulations may be on the horizon.
Martin said she wanted to "put a little meat in the standards" by requiring that schools teach only abstinence-based sex education. If they don't, the schools would not be accredited by the state under her proposal.
"That's unbelievable that they would think of narrowing the focus to abstention," Lawrence school board President Leonard Ortiz said.
"Kids are kids, and I think they need to be exposed to alternatives, because unfortunately not all kids abstain," Ortiz said.
Ortiz said he didn't know whether Lawrence would have to change its opt-out policy to opt-in.
He said he opposed opt-in.
"A lot of times, notices that are supposed to get home don't always make it to the parents, so the students will not have an opportunity to be in a sex education class, which in the long run will hurt them," he said.
But Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City and chairman of the state board said the opt-in proposal was "about empowering parents."
Board member John Bacon, R-Olathe, said opt-in would force schools to work with parents on sex education classes.
"I have reason to believe that parents are not adequately being informed," he said.
Local control rejected
The four-member minority urged the board to consider a policy that told districts to use either the opt-in or opt-out policy.
Board member Carol Rupe, R-Wichita, said that would allow districts to choose whichever policy they think best.
"With both methods, parents have to be informed," she said.
Board member Bill Wagnon, a Democrat from Topeka, whose district includes Lawrence, said the opt-in requirement would anger local schools, which currently have the option of deciding what is best for their schools.
"This is just a wedge issue that is undermining the board. It's a misguided effort to try to impose a particular value system on local boards," Wagnon said.
Martin was the key vote. In September, the board deadlocked 5-5 over the opt-in, opt-out dispute, with Martin wanting to recommend both.
On Wednesday, however, she switched to opt-in after complaining that she heard from parents upset with what was being taught.
The 6-4 majority for opt-in was the same 6-4 majority that has prevailed on other controversial issues over the past year, including the adoption of science standards that criticize evolution and the hiring of Education Commissioner Bob Corkins, who previously worked as an advocate opposed to public schools.
Cynthia Akagi, a Kansas University professor who chaired a committee that put together state health standards, recommended the board endorse giving school districts the option of opt-in or opt-out.
She said the committee was "extremely disappointed" in the board's action.
"They totally disregarded what their constituents want," Akagi said.
Peter Brownlie, chief executive officer and president of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, said the board's actions show the need for the Legislature to approve a bill that would codify expired regulations that allow the opt-out process and include teaching about abstinence and protection from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
The measure, Senate Bill 508, has been approved by the Senate, but hasn't been considered yet by the House Federal and State Affairs Committee.