By Emer Valdez, SIECUS Intern
On February 11, 2014, Kansas State Senator Mary Pilcher-Cook (R) introduced Senate Bill (SB) 376. Its companion, House Bill (HB) 2620, was introduced by the Committee on Education and heard in the committee the following week. These bills would require schools to gain parental (or legal guardian) permission prior to their child attending a sexuality education class, known as an opt-in policy, and make all instructional materials available to parents upon their request. Thirty-five states plus the District of Columbia have opt-out policies, which allow students to be exempted from sexuality education instruction upon the request of a parent. Current Kansas state law does not require parental permission for students to participate in sexuality or HIV/AIDS education, nor does it say whether parents or guardians may remove their children from such classes. As a result, local school districts make their own decisions regarding parental notification or consent.
The origins of this legislation began after Mark Ellis, a parent of an eighth-grade student in Johnson County’s Shawnee Mission school district, received a photo from his daughter of a poster that was being used as a part of a sexuality education class in her school. The poster was titled “How Do People Express Their Sexual Feelings?” and shared a list of answers, which Mr. Ellis found to be inappropriate. (See the related January 2014 SIECUS community action update for more details.)
SB 376’s sponsor, Sen. Pilcher-Cook said; “the overriding objective of this legislation is to ensure that parents have the ability to view sex education material in a manner that is appropriate to them.Opponents of the bill within the Legislature, however, believe that a single incident in a specific county shouldn’t dictate the rule for sexuality education across the state.
Additional opposition to HB 2620 was voiced by residents, state officials, and students during the committee hearing on February 18, 2014. School district representatives from across the state provided their experiences on dealing with concerns from parents regarding sexuality education, such as in Blue Valley, where school officials said they work with parents to modify curriculum if something is found offensive. A spokesperson from Blue Valley also said that so few parents choose to opt their students out of sexuality education instruction, that it is not even being tracked. There was also concern expressed at the hearing from college students from the University of Kansas, Wichita State University, and Emporia State University. The student from Wichita State University commented that the bill would likely make it more difficult for students to get information on sexual health, and thought “decisions on sex education curriculum should be made by local school boards rather than the Legislature.” The Committee on Education also heard from Mark Desetti, lobbyist from the Kansas National Education Association, who testified that Kansas school district’s sexuality education materials—such as curricula used and opt-out forms—are available for parents to request. He continued by stating that; “the real problem is not that the materials aren’t there for parents, but rather that parents are not asking to see them.”
After 90 minutes of debate on February 24, 2014, the House Committee on Education made significant changes to HB 2620, reversing the requirement from an opt-in policy to an opt-out policy. Legislators indicated that “they understood parental concerns but feel some students who need sex education won't receive proper information any other place.” While the final vote to move the bill out of committee was scheduled for February 25, 2014, Chairwoman Kasha Kelley cancelled the hearing stating, “there was still work to be done on the changes to the bill.” The Senate bill awaits a hearing.
John Milburn, “Supporters of Kansas sex education bill say it gives parents control over subject in schools,” Daily Journal, February 18, 2014, accessed February 19, 2014, http://www.dailyjournal.net/view/story/dc859d2e53934312a55e94455cf4cda3/KS-XGR--Sex-Education/#.UwYjN_snjTp.
Brad Cooper, “Parents would need to opt in on sex education in Kansas under proposed bill,” The Bellingham Herald, February 18, 2014, accessed February 20, 2014, http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2014/02/18/3485071/parents-would-need-to-opt-in-on.html.
Brian Lowry, “College students lobby against sex education bills,” The Wichita Eagle, February 17, 2014, accessed February 20, 2014, http://www.kansas.com/2014/02/17/3295423/college-students-lobby-against.html.
Hannah Wise, “Kansas House panel considers opt-in-only sex education,” Lawrence Journal-World, February 18, 2014, accessed February 20, 2014, http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2014/feb/18/kansas-house-panel-considers-opt-only-sex-educatio/.
“House panel revises Kan. sex ed proposal,” SFGate.com, February 24, 2013, accessed February 25, 2014, http://www.sfgate.com/news/education/article/House-panel-revises-Kan-sex-ed-proposal-5263589.php.
Kansas National Education Association, “Under the Dome Today,” February 25, 2014, accessed March 1, 2014, http://www.knea.org/assets/document/KS/UTD2_25.pdf.