Lawrence sex-ed policy likely to stay as opt-out

Superintendent criticizes state board's decision

Lawrence schools Supt. Randy Weseman on Friday criticized the Kansas State Board of Education for being out of touch and unresponsive to local school districts.

“The arguments they’re making are just voices in the dark,” Weseman said. “They’re just not issues.”

Weseman said the Lawrence district likely wouldn’t change its practices in response to the board’s recent vote requiring parental permission before students take sex education courses.

“I think what they did was a solution in search of a problem,” Weseman said. “I just don’t see (the Lawrence board) moving in this direction right now, and I know my board pretty well.”

The state board’s conservative majority on Wednesday approved a requirement that students receive parental permission before taking sex education, a process called opt-in. In Lawrence, as in many districts, parents can have their children opt out of classes.

State Board Chairman Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, said the board’s move with the sex education issue and others were aimed at empowering parents, and he disputed accusations that the board is out of touch.

He said board members had received calls from a lot of people who believed the sex education issue was a problem.

“I think that we are very much in touch with the constituents,” he said.

The Lawrence school board has not put the matter on its agenda nor spoken about it in a public meeting.

“We’ll probably keep doing business the way we’re doing it,” Lawrence board member Linda Robinson said.

Robinson said she expected the issue to arise, if not on the board’s agenda, then in board commentary.

“I feel they’re making a statement that they don’t trust local school districts,” said Janet Waugh, a Democratic state school board member who had voted against the new sex education policy.

But conservative state board member John Bacon, R-Olathe, said the board was helping parents who had been ignored by their local boards and districts.

“I personally think that getting the parents’ permission for this item is not the big deal that everybody is trying to make it out to be,” Bacon said of the sex education requirement. “They really don’t want parents’ input. That’s the feeling I’m getting from district folks on other issues. They’re just ignoring the parents totally. The districts, I think, have kind of thumbed their nose at parents.”

That’s news to Larry McElwain, father of two Lawrence High School students. McElwain said he didn’t understand what the state board members were saying about districts not listening to parents.

“That’s not been my experience,” he said. “I’ve found administration and the school board and the high school administration are all very receptive. They will listen and try to respond and try to understand.”

Lynda Allen, the Lawrence district’s director of math and sciences, said changing to an opt-in process for sex education could be a nightmare to administer because teachers would have to chase down permission slips and design multiple lessons for what essentially could be two classes: one for students who opt in and one for those who opt out.

Health teachers at two Lawrence junior high schools said the issue of teaching human sexuality had not been a major concern for parents.

“The parents are very supportive, and they tell me how glad they are we are talking about this subject,” said Vickie McCauley, a West Junior High School teacher who has taught health for 21 years in Lawrence. McCauley said about 10 students had opted out of her sex education lessons in those 21 years.

Max Cordova, health and physical education teacher at Southwest Junior High School, said talking about the subject in school could ease fears about discussing it at home.

“They’re intimidated by mom and dad, and mom and dad may be intimidated, too,” he said. “It kind of eases up the relationship with mom and dad. It’s all about communicating.”

Conservative state board member Kathy Martin, who could not be reached Friday, had suggested requiring the schools to teach only abstinence-based sex education.

The issue of alleged pornography may be next for the state board.

A dispute in the Blue Valley school district over assigned texts spurred Abrams and others to allege that some schools assign pornographic literature.

Conservative board member Bacon said he’d read some of the texts on the Blue Valley reading list. The list includes “Beloved” by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison and “Black Boy” by Richard Wright.

“I’m thinking, ‘Who in their right mind would want to force this on a child?'” Bacon said. “To me, it screams sexual harassment. … I think it’s important that we at least try to see if we can get some more information.”