How One Outraged Parent Could End Up Undermining Kansas’ Sex Ed Policy

CREDIT: Fox News

Kansas parent Mark Ellis and the sex ed poster that started it all

Kansas parent Mark Ellis and the sex ed poster that started it all

Kansas parent Mark Ellis and the sex ed poster that started it all

CREDIT: Fox News

In 2007, Kansas made headlines for updating its abstinence-only education policy to allow schools to offer what’s called “abstinence-plus.” That allowed health classes to provide information about STDs and birth control, although they’re still required to stress abstinence as the best approach to teen sexuality. Comprehensive sexual health advocates hailed the policy change as an important victory.

Now, seven years later, the state is poised to take a step backwards. Thanks to one parent who’s outraged about the sexual health instruction his daughter is receiving in middle school, Kansas may actually change its policy to accommodate his preferences.

A new GOP-backed bill, sponsored by state Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook (R), would require every student to get parental consent before receiving sex ed instruction. That’s a departure from the current policy, which allows each school district to decide how to handle parental notification. Some of the state’s school districts currently allow parents to “opt out,” and remove their child if they object to the course. But under the new bill, every parent would be required to “opt in” their child instead.

Although the bill doesn’t state this explicitly, it stems from a controversy that occurred last month in Shawnee Mission School District. Mark Ellis, whose daughter attends middle school there, complained to the press after she snapped a photo of a sex ed poster in one of her classrooms. The poster, entitled “How Do People Express Their Sexual Feelings?”, listed various sexual activities like “grinding,” “oral sex,” “kissing,” and “sexual fantasy.” It was part of a larger curriculum intended to teach students which activities could put them at risk for contracting a sexually transmitted infection.

“It makes me wonder what our country has come to when kids get something like this thrown in front of them,” Ellis said in an interview with Fox News toward the end of January. “I couldn’t believe something like that was going on in school.”

The controversy spurred the school district to remove the poster and place that sex ed lesson under review. And it also inspired Pilcher-Cook to draft her new legislation.

“Some of the sexual acts on that list were highly objectionable,” Pilcher-Cook explained to the Kansas City Star. After Ellis contacted her about the poster and encouraged her to find a solution, Pilcher-Cook drafted her legislation, which stipulates that “no board of education of any unified school district shall provide instruction on health and human sexuality to a student, unless written consent has been received from a parent or legal guardian.”

College students in the state lobbied against the proposed bill this week, pointing out that it will pose a barrier for students who need information about reproductive health. “Basing an entire bill that would control every district in the state on one incident — we’re basically looking at going from an opt-out system of sex education, which is organized by districts, to an opt-in,” Sydney Fish, a student at Wichita State University, noted.

Advocates for comprehensive sexuality education oppose “opt in” systems because they prevent some students from being able to access the health resources they need. Not every teen is comfortable asking their parents for permission to enroll in a sex ed class. And since most schools already provide parents with an opportunity to review sex ed materials if they have concerns, sexual health experts argue that there’s no need to enact additional red tape before students even get their foot in the door.

“To require parents to opt students in to a sex education class creates an administrative nightmare for school staff, establishes a separate standard for health education than for other courses offered to students, and fails to recognize young people‚Äôs right to receive honest, age-appropriate sexual health information that can help them protect their health as they mature,” Debra Hauser, the president of Advocates for Youth, told ThinkProgress. “Politicians should not be creating additional barriers that keep young people from receiving the information they need to protect their health and wellbeing.”

Nonetheless, the new bill may gain traction in the legislature. At a committee hearing on Tuesday, Kansas lawmakers expressed support for the measure, saying that parents should maintain the final say over “sexuality and morals.”