House panel OK’s tighter school sex education rules

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona parents would have to opt-in to specific discussions about gender identity and sexual orientation or HIV in sex education classes and schools would be barred from providing any instruction before 5th grade under a proposal approved by a House committee Wednesday over opposition from minority Democrats.

Republican Sen. Nancy Barto of Phoenix said her proposal, SB1456, is designed to give parents more oversight of what their children are being taught and shield young children from inappropriate material. Her bill would also require school districts to readopt their sex education curriculum by the end of this year after extensive public comment periods and public meetings.

“I can’t tell you how concerned many parents are that they are not being warned ahead of time about the content that is happening regarding sexual education in schools and their opportunity to opt out their child,” Barto said. “The main purpose of this bill is to ensure parents that parents are in the driver’s seat and have that opportunity.”

Opponents contend the bill will lead to fewer children taking sex education classes, lead to a rise in teenage pregnancies and prevent schools from warning small children about sex abuse. Currently, younger children can be taught how to spot sexual abuse in “good touch-bad touch” scenarios and be provided limited information on HIV and AIDS designed to give them information on how to avoid infections, for example by avoiding discarded needles or syringes.

Democrats on the panel also said the proposal requiring parents to opt-in to any instruction that includes sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression targets LGBTQ students. They noted that the state repealed a 1991 state law that had barred HIV and AIDS instruction that “promotes a homosexual lifestyle” just two years ago.

Social conservative groups pushed a separate bill last year that would have barred any sex education instruction before the 7th grade and barred any mention of homosexuality.

“What is inside this bill is a complete attack on a set of individuals, specifically the LGBT-plus community,” said Rep. Cesar Chavez, who is openly gay. “What this would do in creating an opt-in already makes the assumption ... that the information that will be provided is immoral.”

Another Democrat, Rep. Melody Hernandez of Tempe, decried the ban on any sex education before 5th grade, saying the law would prevent children from being taught how to tell if they were being abused.

“If they don’t recognize the difference between a good touch and a bad touch, they may not speak up until it is too late,” Hernandez said. “This bill takes it too far – we’re putting more kids in danger.”

Barto said parents can teach their children what they need to know to avoid abuse.

"“This bill does not put children at risk of sexual abuse. Teachers are still required to report if they suspect sexual abuse,” Barto said. “What we’re trying to do is make sure parents are in the drivers seat and make those decisions about what children learn and when.”

Opponents also noted that the proposal’s ban on discussion of sexual orientation would extend far outside of sex education classes, barring instruction on historical figures known for being gay or lesbian and important events like the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York that are seen as the catalyst for the modern gay liberation movement.

Barto acknowledged that her bill would bar such references without parental consent. She said existing law already requires parents to be notified of any discussion of sexuality even outside of sex education classes.

“This is an example where parents needs to be specifically opting in – that’s just laying it out in plain language when those issues are discussed,” Barto said.

Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee said the proposed law is designed to give more rights to parents to review instructional materials and decide for themselves what their children should be taught.

“We can’t make society perfect, but we can give the parents and protect them in their right to take that very, very critical decision,” said Rep. Rusty Bowers, the House speaker. “And for that reason I see that there’s more good than ill in the bill.”

The measure now moves to the full House for consideration. It already passed the Senate on a 16-14 party-line vote.