by Steven Hale
The state Senate this morning gave nearly unanimous support to a bill requiring that "family life curriculum" in public schools stays within certain boundaries. As with so many things this bunch does, the challenge was in discerning what the legislation's actual effect would be, aside from granting lawmakers the chance to put their opposition to teenage promiscuity on the record.
Opponents of the measure have cried "abstinence-only" since it first appeared, but the bill's sponsors have maintained that it simply clarifies the restrictions in current state code, and a representative from the state's Board of Education confirmed to a House subcommittee that it was consistent with current state law.
The bill does revise the requirement regarding which local education agencies must implement such a program. Currently, LEAs in counties that have a pregnancy rate over 19.5 percent per 1,000 females aged 15 to 17 must adopt a program for sex education, within state-set guidelines. Under the new legislation, a 19.5 percent pregnancy rate per 1,000 females 11 to 18 would trigger the requirement.
But the provisions causing the fuss have more to do with what the curriculum may or may not include. The bill requires that curriculum "exclusively and emphatically promote sexual risk avoidance through abstinence." The list of do-nots includes the promotion of "gateway sexual activity" and the distribution of materials that "condone, encourage or promote student sexual activity."
Programs are also prohibited from including "demonstrations with devices manufactured specifically for sexual stimulation" and from distributing contraception on school property, however the bill does state that "medically accurate information about contraception and condoms may be provided" given that it is "presented in a manner consistent" with the bill's other provisions.
Watching legislators carefully discuss this bill in vague terms, so as to avoid having to expound upon the meaning of "gateway sexual activity" or actually say out loud "demonstrations with devices" has been entertaining, to be sure.
Shrieking liberals are correct when they say that sexual mischief will go on in high schools with or without the tacit approval of a sex-ed program. If you think that's not true, you either didn't go to high school, don't remember high school or are in denial about what your high school was like. The prohibitions seem mostly unnecessary — legislators supporting the bill have had a hard time producing convincing evidence that sex-ed teachers have been doling out advice on the sexual bases to dewy-eyed students — but they don't appear to be stopping anything that's currently allowed.
As for the line requiring "exclusive and emphatic" promotion of abstinence, bill sponsor Sen. Jack Johnson assured Pith that doesn't mean abstinence-only, but rather that abstinence would be the choice getting the program's endorsement.
"That's the difference," Johnson said. "Because there are abstinence-only programs out there, where it's just 'No, no, no.' That's not what this is. We're not doing that."
"You do need to talk about contraception and this is how it works and this is the biology of it and these are the risks if you engage in this activity, but here are some ways you can protect yourself."
Currently, state law requires that these programs must "emphasize abstinence from sexual relations outside of marriage." It also allows for a parent to exclude their child from such programs, which the new legislation would not change.
The bill also creates a cause of action in the event that a parent feels a third-party group has gone too far and allow a court to impose a fine of $500. That provision, however, does not apply to teachers employed by the LEA or any instructor deemed to be answering students' relevant questions.
The House version of the bill is still in committee. The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 28-1, with the only opposition coming from Memphis Democrat Beverly Marrero and her characteristically fabulous hat.