‘Human sexuality’ notice sees dueling bills to amend 2021 law

By: - February 27, 2023 9:13 am

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

It’s human sexuality class, and a student raises her hand.

Rep. Eric Matthews, D-Bozeman, said he’s taught that class. He wondered if a proposed law meant he would be putting his career in jeopardy if he called on the student and she made a comment about, say, homosexuality.

“Does that put me in violation of ‘gross neglect of duty’?” Matthews said.

Lance Melton, head of the Montana School Boards Association, said yes, as House Bill 502 is currently written.

Friday, the House Education Committee heard testimony on the bill, which responds to legislation from 2021, Senate Bill 99. That earlier bill, signed into law last session, requires advanced notification by schools on “human sexuality instruction.”

Now, lawmakers are considering dueling proposals tied to the old bill.

One, heard earlier in the week, aims to clarify the notice requirement so parents aren’t inundated with letters they’re throwing in the garbage, and so teachers don’t have to send notifications for lessons that don’t pertain specifically and narrowly to “human sexuality instruction,” according to the sponsor.

(“Romeo and Juliet” is one example cited frequently.)

The bill heard Friday, House Bill 502, would go the opposite direction, instating a penalty against teachers and educators for failing to provide advanced notice. It also would require the district to provide notice for comments students make, not just classroom lessons or events planned by the school.

Unlike the bill heard earlier in the week, HB 502 would retain notices for a wide range of topics, including “intimate relationships” and “gender identity.” It would require notice not less than 48 hours or more than 10 days in advance of the lesson or event at the school.

In addition to the Coalition of Advocates for Montana’s Public Schools, opponents included the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the ACLU of Montana and Montanans Organized for Education.

Proponents included Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, the Montana Family Foundation and Moms for Liberty, Yellowstone County.

Proponents of the bill said it respects the rights of parents to know what their children are learning — and parents should get more than one notice a year, including about controversial topics, such as “gender identity.”

Sponsor Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings, said in the past year, she’d heard from many parents in response to the legislation passed in 2021, and they said they were grateful to be informed in advance of human sexuality instruction, as the law requires.

“When deployed, it has worked to accomplish its intent,” Seekins-Crowe said.

However, she said some districts have not complied, and some parents are consequently feeling dismissed. So HB 502 instates a “remedy for noncompliance.”

“The government is already in control of our children,” Seekins-Crowe said. “ … I propose that we allow our parents to become in control of their children at this time.”

Opponents, however, said the “remedy” would upend standard disciplinary procedures.

Rep. Mark Thane, D-Missoula, a former school administrator, said he wondered if the law wouldn’t allow a principal, human resources director or board of trustees to implement “progressive discipline” if a staff member violated the policy.

Melton said Thane was correct. Progressive discipline would be off the table, he said, and in fact, if the principal did go that direction, the principal also would be responsible for “gross neglect of duty.”

Under Montana Code Annotated 20-4-110, the Board of Public Education may “issue a letter of reprimand or may suspend or revoke” an educator’s teaching certificate for “gross neglect of duty.”

The bottom line for accused teachers is they could lose their job, their right to earn a living, and not just in Montana, but anywhere else, Melton said.

“And you don’t have to really prove anything other than an inadvertent discussion,” he said. “Watch the kid say something on the playground? Oops. There goes your license.”

He said the idea to require advanced notice for conversations students have would open a dangerous Pandora’s box.

On the other hand, Melton said for all of his career, parents already have had the opportunity to “opt out” of lessons for their children, and schools haven’t needed legislation to tell them to do so.

The committee didn’t take action last week on either of the bills attempting to address 2021’s SB 99.

Former Sen. Cary Smith, sponsor of the 2021 legislation, testified in support of HB 502 and said he opposed the other bill, House Bill 566, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls.

Smith, a Billings Republican, said he has 10 grandchildren in public schools, and their parents haven’t received an overwhelming number of letters from schools, contrary to the parents Anderson cited during the earlier hearing.

Smith also said in today’s world, discussions about human sexuality arise outside of the strict confines of science and health classes.

For example, he said if Roe vs. Wade comes up during current events, human sexuality will certainly be part of the conversation, and parents deserve to know about it ahead of time.

Jeff Laszloffy, with the Montana Family Foundation, said his organization gets calls from parents who don’t believe they have enough information to know whether to pull their child from a class, and he said HB 502 would fix the problem.

“We want to put parents back in the driver’s seat when it comes to their children’s education,” said Laszloffy, who had opposed Anderson’s bill.

But opposing HB 502, Erik Burke, with the Montana Federation of Public Employees, said his organization has taken many calls from educators who are confused about the old bill and its requirements. He said HB 502 would only add to the confusion.

Plus, Burke said it threatens a teacher’s license with an overly broad definition of human sexuality, and it requires teachers to know what students are going to talk about ahead of time too.

“We think that’s hugely problematic,” Burke said.

Jenny Murnane Butcher, with Montanans Organized for Education, said the bill demonstrates a “tremendous amount of mistrust” in educators — but teachers value their relationships with parents. She also said the bill would place additional burdens on teachers, who already have little time to prepare lessons.

Keegan Medrano, with the ACLU of Montana, said it would affect students having discussions at science fairs, hurt student groups’ conversations about topics such as abstinence, and “functionally break apart” some clubs, such as a school’s Gay Straight Alliance.

“HB 502 would compel teachers to patrol and control students’ speech at the risk of discipline,” Medrano said. “We believe this is untenable and unrealistic.”

In her close, Seekins-Crowe said she was willing to take another look at liability and consider amendments, but she also said parents need to be the focus in order to rebuild trust with schools. She asked her fellow legislators not to “neuter” SB 99 from 2021.

She shared anecdotes from her own family as well.

Her daughter came home feeling uncomfortable from a biology class when she watched a film that showed, in shadow but still in an explicit way, “a couple getting together,” Seekins-Crowe said. She said her daughter and other students also received condoms from an instructor in a medical careers class, and that shouldn’t have happened.

“Those who oppose this bill don’t seem to have that interest that we maintain with zeal the parents’ rights to have control of this,” she said.

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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.