Ignorance Is Dangerous

Arizona's Legislature turns back the clock on sex education

In a whirlwind year of conservative lawmaking, we've seen everything from an immigration crackdown and a concealed-weapon-restriction letup to the long-awaited liberation of sparkler aficionados.

Now it seems the right-leaning Arizona Legislature also wants to free our children from pondering the birds and the bees.

Sponsored by state Sen. Chuck Gray of Mesa, and signed by Gov. Jan Brewer in May, SB 1309—the so-called Parents' Bill of Rights—contains a number of provisions designed to shore up the apparently fragile standing of our family pillars.

The law erases any medical privacy for teens and enshrines parental command over the "moral or religious training" of their kids—and mandates that parents sign off on sex-education classes taught at school.

That last caveat raises concerns that Arizona's already spotty commitment to providing this vital information could be further diminished, despite the fact that the state now boasts the nation's second-highest rate of unwanted pregnancies.

But in the end, it seems, image is what really counts. How else to explain this bill, which is essentially a stalking horse for the "family values" contingent?

Sen. Gray didn't return a phone call by press time. But the real force behind his new law is a group called the Center for Arizona Policy. Among other things, this right-wing outfit fights abortion rights, gambling and the "homosexual agenda."

The Center for Arizona Policy has also pledged to halt the erosion of parental power, says the center's legal counsel, Deborah Sheasby. "Parents have a constitutional right to direct the education and upbringing of their children. But we've seen a lot of court cases and different situations across the country where those rights are being eroded."

When asked for examples of this trend, Sheasby punts. "In terms of particular litigation, I don't know specifically of the varying kinds of cases," she says, "although there was a case where parents were home-schooling their children, and their right to direct the education of their children in that way was called into question by the government."

If that doesn't exactly sound like a vast assault on parental rights, Catherine Lugg says there's good reason: Such an assault simply doesn't exist. Lugg is an associate professor of education at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. The true goal of the parents'-rights movement, she says, "is to control the education of all children, regardless of their religious background.

"They're trying to ensure that all public-school children get very incomplete (sex education), or they don't get any at all. But I don't see how helping kids to become stupid is an educational virtue."

Ultimately, groups such as the Center for Arizona Policy "want schools to uphold their own religious dogma," she says. "But, of course, schools constitutionally can't do that."

That leaves these religious groups to seize other opportunities—such as the one offered by the conservative-controlled Arizona Legislature—to push their stealth agenda.

"But if you look at the survey data, 70 to 80 percent of parents want comprehensive sexuality education taught in the public schools," says Lugg. "Why? Because many parents either don't feel equipped to talk about sex, or they are really uncomfortable with it."

Dr. Michelle McDonald is the chief medical officer for the Pima County Health Department. She worries that sex-ed classes will dwindle now that a parental signature is required. "Children lose the notes, and they never make it home," she says, "or the parents are busy, and they forget to sign (notes) on time. Even if they meant to give permission, half of them are not going to get it in on time."

That could make a bad situation worse, she says, noting that Arizona doesn't just have one of the nation's highest rates of unwanted pregnancy rates, but also ranks near the top in rates of congenital syphilis. "Congenital" refers to babies born with this sexually transmitted disease; last year, it was responsible for at least two stillbirths in Pima County.

Not surprisingly, education is among the most potent tools for fighting these grim diseases. That's why the Parents' Bill of Rights goes in exactly the wrong direction, says McDonald. "I don't disagree with the sponsors of this bill that it would be great if all families could have open, streamlined communication about delicate issues like sex. But the fact is, that is not the case."

Currently, policies vary from district to district. For instance, the Sunnyside Unified School District sends notes home advising parents of sex-education classes for middle school and high school students, but doesn't yet require signed permission.

But the Tucson Unified School District does require signed permission for students to attend its "family life" classes, says district science program coordinator Joan Gilbert. "We also have a letter that goes home to inform parents that these lessons will be taught, and that the curriculum is available for them to come to the school and review if they have any questions."

When signed notes aren't returned, teachers get on the phone. "If (the letter) still doesn't come back," says Gilbert, "children attend an alternative health program."

She estimates that there are usually less than five students in each school who don't have permission to participate in TUSD's sex-ed program, which was carefully fashioned over several years. "It was developed with teachers and curriculum specialists and health departments, and with what used to be our own robust health department," she says. "There was input from parents, and they had an advisory committee and a parent survey. It was also developed around the state standard."

Still, requiring that parents now "opt in" to these classes is only part of the picture. The new law also demands that parents be given the "opportunity to withdraw their children from any instruction or presentations regarding sexuality in courses other than formal sex-education curricula."

Therein lies a very slippery slope, says Michelle Steinberg, public policy director for Planned Parenthood of Arizona. "Does this mean that the English teacher who introduces Romeo and Juliet to the class has to notify parents ahead of time? What concerns me is that school districts are going to be so reticent to teach anything that has any sexual undertones at all—and forgo all sorts of other things."

In the end, it's the children who lose, says Steinberg. "These kids deserve good, medically accurate, age-appropriate information. There's no reason in the world to keep them in the dark."

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