Kansas House panel considers opt-in-only sex education

? What began as a hearing about human health and sex education for Kansas students evolved Tuesday into a debate on parental involvement and best school practices.

The House education committee heard testimony on HB 2620, which would prohibit school districts from providing health and sex education to students without written consent from a parent or guardian. It would also require school districts to provide materials from sex education classes to parents upon request.

The measure was introduced by Rep. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, after she learned about a poster titled “How People Express Their Sexual Feelings” at Hocker Grove Middle School in Shawnee. The poster listed acts ranging from “kissing” to “vaginal intercourse.”

“While some of the items on the list were not objectionable, some of them were highly offensive,” Pilcher-Cook said.

Mark Ellis is the father of a 13-year-old Hocker student who saw the poster on the back of a science classroom door and was “disturbed by it.” Pilcher-Cook invited Ellis to testify Tuesday. He said he has always chosen to exclude his daughter from sex education, and this year was no different.

“This bill would make us as parents have the say-so again that we do this at home or we let the teachers,” Ellis said.

The Shawnee School District uses an abstinence-based program called “Make A Difference!” in its health and sexuality courses. It was not clear during the hearing whether the poster was part of the “Make A Difference!” program, but it was clear that that all parties thought the poster was inappropriate and were glad it had been removed.

The Lawrence School District maintains an opt-out policy that was adopted in 2001, according to policy statement provided by district spokeswoman Julie Boyle. It allows parents to remove their children from “all or some portion of the human sexuality curriculum.” Unless parents complete an opt-out form, students attend the instruction. The district policy also states that parents may receive a written copy of the district’s goals and objectives for the sexuality curriculum upon request.

The bill under consideration would require districts to collect signed consent forms from all parents who want their children to opt-in to health and sexuality education. It would also require that all districts provide class materials to parents upon request.

Much of Tuesday’s testimony focused on how to best involve parents in decisions about how their children will learn about human health and sexuality. The committee heard from Tom Krebs, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, about how curriculums are adopted and how involved parents are in vetting them.

Krebs’ organization opposes the bill, arguing that it would be taxing for teachers and administrators to collect permission slips and monitor which students attended classes.

Several committee members asked at what age human sexuality is being discussed in schools, and Krebs referred to the Kansas Model Health Standards. They suggest that discussion about human health and sexuality begin in fourth and fifth grade, when students’ bodies begin changing. By eighth grade the standards recommend a more comprehensive discussion about sexual activity and sexually transmitted diseases.

Mark Desetti of the Kansas National Education Association also testified against the bill. He said that his four children took health and sexuality education classes at their public schools. He also said that his children attended further comprehensive family-based sexuality education classes offered by the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.

Desetti said that the materials are there for the parents to request, as are the opt-out forms. Desetti said that the real problem is not that the materials aren’t there for parents, but rather that parents are not asking to see them.