February 27, 2024

Indiana Republicans want school boards in charge of sex ed. Critics say students will suffer

A health educator with the Indianapolis-based nonprofit LifeSmart Youth leads a sex education class for fifth graders at an Indianapolis school in April 2022. - Lee V. Gaines/WFYI

A health educator with the Indianapolis-based nonprofit LifeSmart Youth leads a sex education class for fifth graders at an Indianapolis school in April 2022.

Lee V. Gaines/WFYI

Over the last few years Indiana sex and health educators faced online attacks, school districts pulling back from offering human sexuality programs and legislative limits to what they can teach.

During this General Assembly, some GOP lawmakers want to require school boards to decide how and if sex education is taught in an effort, they say, to expand transparency on a sensitive subject for families.

Opponents of the legislation fear it could create unnecessary barriers and limit sex education in Indiana schools further. Senate Bill 128 would require school boards and the governing authorities of charter schools and accredited private schools to review and approve all curriculum related to human sexuality before it can be taught in the classroom.

Additionally, some worry the absence of a definition of “human sexuality” in the legislation could cause schools to ban LGBTQ student groups or censor books that include diverse representations of gender and sexuality. 

Tammie Carter, CEO of LifeSmart Youth, said the change could require educators like her to spend countless hours explaining their programming to school boards across the state. The organization funded by federal, state and philanthropic dollars, provides sex education to more than 14,000 students in 122 school districts across Indiana.

“I don't know what this bill does differently other than as a not-for-profit professional forces me to spend my already limited resources going around meeting with governing bodies, when school officials are already entrusted with the power to approve curriculum” Carter told WFYI.

But Sen. Gary Byrne (R-Byrneville), one of the authors of SB 128, described the legislation as a “simple bill” during a Senate hearing in early February. 

He said the catalyst for the legislation is concerns he’s heard from parents and teachers regarding sex education instruction in schools. 

“We do not have any state standards for sex ed,” Byrne said. “So teachers don't have a lot of directions. I didn't want to force anything at the state level in this bill. But as a former school board member, I think putting the local school boards in the driver's seat on this issue makes good sense.”

The bill, Byrne said, would help parents decide whether they want to opt their child out of sex ed programs. 

SB 128 would also require all approved human sexuality curriculum to be posted in a conspicuous spot on school websites. Schools would be required to note if the lessons would be taught to male and female students separately or together, and whether the instructor will be male or female.

The bill passed out of the Senate 38-10 with nearly all Senate Democrats voting against it; Sen. Jean Breaux (D-Indianapolis) was excused, and Sen. Vaneta Becker (R-Evansville) was the sole Republican to vote against the measure. 

SB 128 did not get a hearing in the House Education Committee, but lawmakers could still revive the legislation by inserting this language into another bill during the conference committee process. 

The potential impact on sex ed in schools

Indiana doesn’t require schools teach sex education — aside from lessons on HIV and AIDS — and Republican lawmakers passed legislation last year that bans sex ed in kindergarten through third grade. 

Existing laws already require schools to notify parents about sex ed lessons. Parents are also allowed to opt their children out, and have access to the curriculum their school will use.

Carter said parents have access to LifeSmart lessons via an online portal. But posting curriculum materials on school websites as required by the legislation would pose a serious problem for her organization. 

“Our materials are proprietary, we have purchased evidence based curriculum that have cost us money. And we have to sign off saying that we're not going to give this proprietary information away,” she said. 

She also said requiring schools to notify parents well in advance whether these lessons will be provided by a male or female instructor is another obstacle.

“It would really be impossible for me to commit to a male or female,” Carter said. 

The biological sex or gender of an educator has no bearing on the quality of sex ed students receive, according to Nora Gelperin, director of sex education and training at Advocates for Youth — an organization that promotes access to comprehensive sex education.

“So that part (of SB 128) really flies in the face of science,” Gelperin said.

Gelperin said SB 128 is part of a wave of legislative proposals “trying to put more bureaucracy and red tape between what kids need to learn and deserve to know about how to be healthy and safe, and what schools are able to provide.”

In 2023, laws to restrict sex education were passed in eight states — compared to just one in 2022, according to the organization SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change.

She said students are the ones who will bear the consequences, particularly LGBTQ youth who are often excluded from sex education curriculum

“And I've never met a school board member who has any training or background in sexuality, particularly what LGBTQ students need. So I think it's putting decision making in the wrong hands,” Gelperin said.

Lawmakers debate

Byrne, one of the authors of SB 128, said during a recent Senate hearing that he wouldn’t define human sexuality in the legislation because “the values of one community on what that means may be different than any other.”

Sen. J.D. Ford (D-Indianapolis) said he agreed with critics of the legislation who believe it will have a chilling effect on discussions of LGBTQ identities in schools.

“This bill, simply put, allows Moms for Liberty direct access to see what's going on, so that way they can go to their local school boards and fuss with them.

Sen. Andrea Hunley, (D-Indianapolis) asked Byrne if he’d be open to working with her on establishing sex education standards for the state. 

“Probably wouldn't. But I would say this right now the school could decide not to teach it, which some of them don't,” Byrne said. 

Hunley questioned why the state should leave it up to individual school boards to determine what type or whether sex education be taught in schools at all, when other subjects like history, math and reading are governed by state standards. 

“I mean, honest to goodness, this bill really isn't accomplishing much except for making, you know, an additional administrative headache on our school boards,” Hunley said. 

But Republican senators defended the legislation, including Sen. Liz Brown (R-Fort Wayne).

“All we're asking is to have a public discussion about it. So everyone's on the same page. Parents don't have to go to this school board meeting. But the school board should know. That's their responsibility,” she said. 

March 14 is the last day of Indiana’s legislative session. 

Contact WFYI education reporter Lee V. Gaines at lgaines@wfyi.org.


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