Sex education curriculum could face state standards

Published: Apr. 6, 2017 at 2:02 AM PDT
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Abstinence, abortion, gender identity, and Plan B all could be mandated topics in sexual education courses across the state. Assembly Bill 348, sponsored by Assemblywoman Amber Joiner (D), would establish state standards for sexual education curriculum for all school districts.

"Whether you like it or not," she said "Our students are engaging in activities that put them at risk of pregnancy and diseases."

The content and curriculum would still be determined by the individual districts, but AB 348 would set the topics that must be discussed at age-appropriate times, ensuring all students across the state learn the same basic information What topics are appropriate for certain ages would still be determined by school districts' Board of Trustees. But the topics that would be required has sparked controversy.

"Instead of teaching the basics, we're teaching about gender, we're teaching about orientation, we're talking about kids understanding sexting is illegal at their age," Russell Hunter, S.H.A.R.E. program coordinator for the Washoe County School District, said. "We're teaching all of the legal matters. We're talking about sexual seduction. We're talking about trafficking. These are issues that go well beyond pregnancy and health."

They are also issues and topics the S.H.A.R.E. program is looking to include in Washoe's updated sexual education curriculum. Assemblywoman Joiner told the Assembly Committee on Education that in drafting the bill, she looked at some of the curriculum across the state to determine what should be taught.

"It's not like we invented a new list," she said. "Many of our students are already receiving these topics. These topics are not new. I think this is another misconception that's happening. I want to be clear this list came from some of our very best curriculum that's already in place in the state."

Hunter says if the bill passes, there may be some changes to the new S.H.A.R.E. curriculum, but it would likely speed up the process of implementing it. Right now, he says, the new curriculum for Washoe County won't be implemented for a couple of years.

But opponents of the bill say these topics don't have a place in schools.

"To extend the topics into birth control, how kids can go get the morning after pill without the parents knowing, I mean these are some of the things Washoe is currently considering that AB 348 will mandate," Karen England, executive director of the Nevada Family Alliance, said. "It takes health education out of just health and the basic hygiene, and they're exploring gender theory. They're talking about sexual orientation."

She says there's nothing from prohibiting the school districts from teaching these controversial subjects if they want to now, but her organization opposes the mandate and the proposed curriculum.

"I don't think we should be encouraging our elementary and middle school students to go get birth control without the parents," she said. "I don't think that is the proper place of the schools to tell them where to go get it, how to get it without parents knowing."

The bill requires "all options authorized by law for family planning in the event of a pregnancy." Opponents says this includes the topic of how to get an abortion.

But Assemblywoman Joiner told the committee she intentionally left in the requirement that schools also teach abstinence.

"I am a firm believe that is the only fool-proof way to avoid pregnancy and STI's," she said. "We also have to acknowledge that some students are already engaging in sexual activity and it can't be the only thing we teach."

Still, opponents say parents should be teaching these topics. But supporters of the bill cited Nevada's high teen pregnancy and STD rates as proof students aren't getting the information they need.

"Nevada's young people deserve accurate information, not perilous ignorance," Vivian Lea, who supports the bill, said.

"In my mind, it's a very old, archaic system that assumes kids have parents at home, and I think that's just not the reality," Assemblywoman Joiner said.

That is why her bill also changes the current "opt in" policy. Currently, a parent's signature is needed for a student to participate in a sex ed course. Assemblywoman Joiner says changing to an "opt out" system, parents still have the choice of whether their students participate.

"I respect that families have different values, cultures and religions that guide how they want to talk to their children about these issues," she said. "This bill absolutely preserves the right of the parent to not have their children in these course. The only thing that changes is the procedure by which those parents make their wishes known."

She also told the committee anywhere from 5-10% of students in any given school district do not get a sex education, not because their parents don't opt them in, but because the kids don't bring the permission slip home. This bill would still send written notice home that the curriculum will be taught. The "opt out" form will also be sent home.

But Assemblywoman Joiner says this change ensures at-risk students will still get the information they need.

"Arguably the students who are in the most at risk are the ones that don't have an actively involved parent or adult to talk to at home," she said "They are the ones missing out on vital information, and the reason we must have opt out in our state. In my mind it is not acceptable to leave that education to Google and cable."

The rooms in both Las Vegas and Carson were packed at the bill hearing Wednesday with people both in support and against the bill. The committee took no action on AB 384.