‘Human sexuality instruction’ back in House Education Committee

By: - February 23, 2023 6:43 pm

Illustration by Getty Images.

Do parents really need to get a letter that says “human sexuality instruction” is taking place in advance of every school lesson about “Romeo and Juliet”?

Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, said he doesn’t think so.

This week, Anderson proposed House Bill 566, which he said aims to iron out a bill that passed last session and requires parental notification for “human sexuality instruction.”

The 2021 bill, Senate Bill 99, didn’t just require notification for teaching, it did so for “providing information” about human sexuality. It also covered “intimate relationships” and “gender identity.”

It required parent notification 48 hours in advance of such instruction — but it also said districts should provide annual notifications. In short, educators said it created some confusion.

“I don’t believe that bill was ever intended to have individual teachers send letters home on every individual lesson that they were teaching that might have some interpretation of relationship or human sexuality,” Anderson said.

“Who among the following public employees and officials do you trust the most when it comes to deciding what is best academically for students in Montana’s public schools?” Source: Coalition of Advocates for Montana’s Public Schools.

As such, HB 566 would require annual notification of human sexuality instruction rather than 48-hour notification. It would cover teaching, but it would exclude notice for “providing information” on the topics.

The bill also would focus the notification on human sexuality in science and health enhancement courses, and it would not require notice for topics such as “intimate relationships” or “gender identity,” example.

The School Administrators of Montana and a coalition of advocates for public schools supported the bill as a way to clarify conflicting language around notification. Also in support, the Montana Federation of Public Employees said the bill would reduce needless red tape for teachers.

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and the Montana Family Foundation opposed the bill. The Montana Family Foundation’s Jeff Laszloffy said it would erode trust with parents.

Anderson, however, said the idea came from parents.

One recent weekend in Great Falls, he heard complaints from parents about the number of letters they were getting — so many, he said they were throwing them in the garbage.

Anderson said one parent even said if that’s the way schools are using resources, he wouldn’t support any more levies.

“So I think there’s some ugly side effects to the interpretation of the bill,” Anderson said.

One English teacher has sent over 500 notification letters as a result of SB99, he said, and that’s time the teacher could be spending preparing for class and working with students.

Arntzen, though, questioned the idea to remove the 48-hour notification. She said she didn’t know what the best timeframe was, but parents need advanced notice.

“There’s a challenge with parents at this point not necessarily recognizing what is happening in schools,” Arntzen said.

Just this school year, she said, teachers had surrendered licenses to her based on “information that has flown in a sexual nature” to children. The Office of Public Instruction noted two licenses were surrendered in 2022.

Laszloffy, with the Montana Family Foundation, said he wasn’t as concerned about the notification period as he was with the content that required notification.

“Let’s make sure that anything that has a moral or a sexual component to it, even tangentially, will be covered under this bill so that parents once again have trust in the schools,” he said.

Laszloffy urged legislators to retain advanced notification for topics such as gender identity and sexual orientation, “the hot button subjects that have gotten parents riled up.”

“The problem with this bill is it just says, ‘We’re not going to tell you if those things are taught,’” Laszloffy said. “That’s a slap in the face to parents.”

Rep. James Bergstrom, R-Buffalo, asked both Anderson and Arntzen if they might work together to come to some agreement around the bill, and both said yes. Anderson said his interest was in legislation that was realistic.

“We can have bills that are so extreme that the schools cannot function,” Anderson said. “Parents may not be better informed.”

The discussion at the meeting included comments about whether parents trust schools, and it shifted away from notification requirements to school curriculum itself.

Poll results published by the Coalition of Advocates for Montana’s Public Schools show teachers and locally elected school boards are trusted “the most” to decide what is best academically for students among a group of public employees — by 65.3%.

Coming in second was the state Board of Public Education at 11.5%. Of those polled by Zogby Analytics, 4.8% found the state superintendent to be the most trusted, while 4.6% found the U.S. Department of Education to be the most trusted. Conducted annually, the results have a confidence index of ±4%.

At the meeting, Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings, quizzed Anderson about his proposal. She said she had voted in favor of the bill in 2021, and not because she wanted more paperwork going to parents.

Rather, she said she wanted to encourage instructors to “go find better material to teach” and stop thinking it was their responsibility to teach human sexuality in English class.

“I think that maybe this topic is being taught too much in our schools,” Seekins-Crowe said.

Anderson said decisions about specific curriculum take place at a level that involves local school boards.

“I’d be a little reluctant to tell teachers, you know, ‘Go out and wildcat and pick up whatever you want to teach. The curriculum is somewhat there, but you don’t have to follow it,’” Anderson said. “I think that’s a dangerous, dangerous precedent.”

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill Wednesday and was not scheduled to meet Thursday.

CAMPS Zogby Poll booklet_final

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.