Earlier this winter scores of Alaskan educators gathered in Anchorage for state sponsored training workshops that included presentations on how to advance and implement sex education materials in school districts around the state.
The three-day Alaska School Health & Wellness Institute, sponsored by the state’s Department of Education and Early Development and Department of Health and Social Services, dealt with other issues such as nutrition, obesity and diabetes prevention, exercise, substance abuse and internet crimes. The institute took place Oct. 24-26 at the BP Energy Building in Anchorage.
One workshop dealt with how schools could advance sex education programs while still complying with a new state law that allows parents to review all materials dealing with sex education at least two weeks before they are distributed or taught to students. The law also mandates that parents be allowed to review the credentials of all instructors who teach sex education, and explicitly notes that parents may withdraw children from any sex education course.
The law passed last year, but not before Planned Parenthood and other abortion and sex education activists unsuccessfully pressured Gov. Bill Walker to veto the legislation, claiming it would limit student access to sex education.
Jessica Cler, a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman in Alaska, criticized the law for implementing “harmful and dangerous restrictions on sex education.” Pro-life groups, meanwhile, supported the bill as a common sense way to ensure that pro-abortion groups don’t sneak their agenda into classrooms without the knowledge of parents and local school boards.
Faced with the requirements of the new law, presenters Patty Owen, from the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development, and Jenny Baker from the Alaska Division of Public Health, proceeded to guide workshop attendees through ways to advance what many might consider to be “controversial” sex education in their school districts.
Owen began by noting that more than 25 percent of high school students are sexually active in Alaska with 43 percent of 12th graders claiming to be sexually active within the past three months.
Baker told attendees that sexually transmitted infections (STI) are on the rise among Alaska’s youth but pregnancies are dropping. She credited the increased use of “birth control, like pills, IUD shot, patch, ring” as a possible reason for the decline in teen pregnancies. Abortion also plays a role, she said, while noting that more measures need to be taken.
Baker acknowledged that “talking about sex education and talking about sex in general is controversial” and that some parents and school boards don’t support it.
Nonetheless, she and Owen encouraged Alaskan educators to push for “comprehensive” sex education that includes explicit instruction on the proper use of a condom, how to procure and utilize a wide range of contraceptives and how to understand and accept gender roles, gender identity and sexual orientation, among other topics.
One challenge to this, Owen lamented, is that sex education is not required by Alaska law, but only “encouraged.”
“In an ideal world,” she said, sex education would be comprehensive and reinforced from one grade to the next throughout a child’s school years. To accomplish this goal she pointed to programs that teach sex education and gender identity to students as young as kindergarten.
“We’re hoping it’s not a one-time, birds-and-the-bees conversation between parents and their children,” she said. “Whether it be at homes or schools or clinics, it should be an ongoing conversation.”
In evaluating various types of sex education programs, Baker made passing reference to “abstinence only” approaches which she claimed focused narrowly on “telling people that the safest thing to do is not have sex outside of marriage.” She then criticized such programs for avoiding discussion on how to attain and use contraceptives.
Baker contrasted abstinence-only programs with what she called a “more comprehensive approach” that teaches kids how to engage in sexual behavior so as to avoid the risk of pregnancy and disease.
“When you are going to have sex use a condom or contraceptive or mouth barrier or something like that to prevent all sorts of STIs,” she said.
When one attendee asked about the place of courtship, Baker dismissed the suggestion.
“Sometimes they call it hooking up now, or hanging out, or getting together or sexting, or, I mean it’s just kind of redefined,” she said. “There’s just a lot of different ways people are starting relationships now and it’s not courting.”
Owen encouraged school nurses and educators in attendance to press local school boards to implement comprehensive sex education. She warned, however, that some boards might resist.
“A lot of schools may not want to face the sex-ed policy issue,” she said. “They want people to just go ask their parents, because they don’t want to have those hard conversations or controversy.”
Owen then reviewed the new sex education law, noting that all sex education teachers must possess a valid Alaska teaching certificate and be employed by the district, or be supervised by someone with a valid teaching certificate. She highlighted that all teachers, not just their agency, must be approved and their credentials made available for parents to review.
Whether sex education instructors need to be approved each year they teach, is less clear. Owen said she thought individual school boards could choose the process they determine best.
Owen noted that the new law does not just apply to classroom instruction. Materials distributed anywhere in the school must also be approved by the school board and given to parents for review, she said.
“There may be places in the school where you have pamphlets to pick up etcetera — the counselors office, the nurses office,” she said.
But nothing in the new law, she said, prohibits school nurses or teachers from answering individual questions that students might ask in one-on-one situations.
A school nurse in attendance wondered if she could just use her “professional judgment” in giving out calling cards and pamphlets, on a one-on-one basis, to students without prior approval from school boards or notification to parents.
Owen said she wasn’t sure if that was permitted.
“You’d have to ask your district,” she said.
“I’m sure you have a lot of questions about the law and we’re not here to interpret them, because we are not lawyers,” Baker added.
She closed the presentation by highlighting that parental involvement, while important, is not the only concern educators should take into account when it comes to choosing and implementing a sex education program.
“Yes, we want to include parental involvement, but also to include youth in the conversation as well — to include stakeholders,” she said. “And youth might be the ones who really want this information, so don’t forget them.”