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May 25, 2015

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LEGISLATURE 2013:

Debate over sex-ed bill devolves amid fears of ‘worst-case scenario’

Assemblyman David Bobzien of the 77th (2013) Nevada Assembly District.

Assemblyman David Bobzien of the 77th (2013) Nevada Assembly District.

While it may be difficult for some parents to talk about sex with their kids, Nevadans have had no trouble talking about sex with the Nevada Legislature.

The lengthy and wide-ranging debate surrounding Assemblyman David Bobzien’s sex education bill includes a legislator’s abortion tale, fights over parental rights and the size of government, concerns that public schools would open their doors to Planned Parenthood and allegations that kindergartners would receive explicit sex-ed instruction if the bill passed.

The rhetoric surrounding the bill has invoked arguments that fall well outside the actual language of the proposal to the point that its effect on parents and schoolchildren may be lost.

“There’s a whole mythology to this bill that has really gone off the tracks,” Bobzien said. “We’ve diverted this whole conversation of an important policy issue to someone’s visceral worst-case scenario.”

The Reno Democrat said he’s worked with the advocacy and education group Planned Parenthood to introduce a bill that would update the state’s standards for sex education in public schools.

His goal is to standardize the state’s sex education law from the 1980s while respecting local school districts and the rights of parents. He also hopes the bill helps reduce Nevada’s teen pregnancy rate, which is the fourth-highest in the nation.

But critics say the bill usurps local control, forces parents to submit their children to inappropriate sex-ed regimens, advances Planned Parenthood’s agenda in regards to abortion and opens the door to “comprehensive” sex education untethered from morality or community concerns.

“This is the most controversial bill of the session, I think,” said Joyce Haldeman, associate superintendent and chief lobbyist for the Clark County School District.

The bill has received more than 1,500 comments on the Legislature’s bill opinion system, and legislative hearings to consider it have been so long that you could have left the hearing, watched a movie and returned to hear the rest of the testimony.

Beyond all the rhetoric, what’s actually in the bill and how would it affect Nevada families and kids?

One oft-repeated criticism from parents is that the bill would result in children being taught explicit sex education beginning as early as kindergarten.

Technically, that could be true, but only if local school boards decide it's appropriate to approve kindergarten sex-ed classes.

In Clark County, children receive comprehensive sex education in fifth, eighth and 10th grades. The bill wouldn’t remove that discretion.

The bill would put the state’s Council to Establish Standards for Public Schools in charge of developing standards for sex education in Nevada, but local school boards would ultimately craft sex-ed policies.

The state education board holds open meetings, as do school boards. The elected board makes the decision about at what age children receive instruction, and parents have opportunities to voice opinions.

“There are more opportunities to be involved in this than any other part of the curriculum, I’m certain,” said Elisa Cafferata with Planned Parenthood.

Concerned parents can preview “all instructional materials” before the course is taught. That’s in the current law and doesn’t change in the bill.

Other opponents have noted that the bill allows not only teachers but “a provider of health care” to teach sex education, which they say opens the door to Planned Parenthood entering schools to push its agenda with children.

It’s true that Planned Parenthood could qualify under the definition of health care provider. Under the bill, local elected school boards would approve the qualifications of health care providers, including Planned Parenthood representatives.

While some fear that health care counselors would recommend abortion providers, the word "abortion" makes no appearance in the bill.

The bill does, however, identify “abstinence as the most effective method of preventing an unwanted pregnancy.”

Opponents also note that the bill changes the state’s “opt-in” system, in which parents receive a letter from schools asking them to approve students’ participation in sex education instruction.

“This structure forces parental involvement,” said Janine Hansen, with Nevada Families for Freedom, which opposes the bill. “You have the basic presumption that they have the right to decide.”

The bill would change the law to create an “opt-out” system; students would take sex ed unless parents pull them out of the class.

But Cafferata said there’s an amendment in the works that would seek a compromise: the current opt-in system would remain unless an elected school board votes to adopt an opt-out system.

Hansen also is concerned that the curriculum would be enshrined in state law.

It is true that the bill would mandate local school boards include instruction on certain topics.

Beyond what’s already taught, Haldeman said the bill would add to the curriculum discussion of gender stereotypes, sexual exploitation and human trafficking, relationship negotiating skills, resources for counseling, “effective and safe methods of contraception,” and sexually transmitted infection screening and treatment.

The bill has passed out of the state Assembly with all Democrats supporting the bill and all Republicans opposing. The Senate has yet to vote.

“We’re still working on this,” Bobzien said. “I remain hopeful we can cut through all the noise and focus on the needed public policy.”

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