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The Journal Gazette

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Thursday, February 08, 2018 1:00 am

Health education 'opt-in' dangerous step backward

Jenny Robinson

Jenny Robinson has three children in public schools and is a volunteer with the Indiana Coalition for Public Education of Monroe County.

In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control said that 17 percent of girls in Indiana in grades 9 through 12, reported having been raped. Hoosiers led the nation in the sexual assault of young women (the national average was 10.5 percent). More than half the time, the perpetrator was a family member or intimate partner.

It's not pleasant to know that families themselves are the location and source of a fair proportion of violence against women. Lawmakers may find it upsetting, even, that 40 percent of Indiana's high school students are sexually active.

But it's incumbent on legislators to weigh facts when making decisions. Indiana state senators reneged on that responsibility when they caved to concerned evangelicals mobilized by Eric Miller of Advance America and approved Senate Bill 65 to make public school coursework relating to human sexuality dependent on parental “opt-in.”

Opting in is a much stronger burden on a lesson than opting out. It sets up a default system where kids will have access to course material only if a parent receives, approves, and remembers to fill out and return a form.

In a Senate committee hearing on Jan. 17, Indianapolis pediatrician Mary Ott testified that the Indiana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics believes the opt-in provision sets an unacceptable barrier to participation in schools' health curricula.

Under opt-in systems, rates of participation drop dramatically; not because parents object to the instruction, necessarily, but because they forget to return the form. Households coping with chaos, substance use and illiteracy are least likely to return forms, but Ott suggested that students from families in these circumstances may also be those most in need of health information.

Sadly, it's also likely that a small number of the parents/guardians whose consent would be required are themselves sexually abusing their children. Should a child's access to sex education depend on the consent of her abuser?

Related question: Should a student depend on Google and peers, or older siblings of peers, for health information? Do lawmakers think that just because kids won't get information at school, they won't seek and obtain information of some kind – information that may be substandard or even dangerously wrong?

My teenage daughter, who never likes discussing “health education,” still had a comment that lawmakers should hear: “If you heard the questions that get asked in health, you would know how much it's needed.”

Ott spoke of rural counties in Indiana experiencing high rates of hepatitis C and HIV infection. “We have to talk about sex to talk about abstinence,” she said. “Heartbreak is a new HIV diagnosis in a young person.”

Public schools already must make curricula available for parents to review and are expected to inform parents when instruction will address sensitive topics. As a parent, I receive letters from teachers or social workers describing upcoming units. In our existing system, parents are able to opt children out of instruction.

For adolescents, health education is inextricable from information about sexual development. The opt-in would create administrative, logistical barriers to the delivery of evidence-based information about bodies and relationships. SB 65 elevates the private right of a concerned parent over other parents' kids' ease of access to useful and medically sound information. Adolescents are learning to navigate the world outside their families, and they deserve honest, accurate and age-appropriate curricula.

Now SB 65 moves to the Indiana House for approval. Please contact your state representative today to ask for a “no” vote.