Montana’s new sex Ed Law also ensnares English and history classes

A Montana law that requires public schools to notify parents of classes that mention human sexuality — and allows parents to withdraw their children from those classes — went further and more circumstantial than expected, according to two school district leaders.

School districts across the state have spent months consulting with attorneys and reshaping their policies to ensure they comply with the 2021 law. Senate Bill 99 requires parents to be given at least 48 hours’ notice of classes related to sex education and other topics including anatomy, intimate relationships, sexual orientation, gender identity, contraception and reproductive rights.

Because of the broad scope of the law, some schools have chosen to educate parents on issues that may not be overtly related to human sexuality. In Billings, for example, school administrators sent a notice to parents of high school students at the beginning of the school year that flagged literary works like The Great Gatsby and Romeo and Juliet because they depict intimate relationships. History and US government lessons on civil rights and certain US Supreme Court cases make the list. This also applies to biology classes that involve sexual reproduction – even non-human reproduction.

“Honestly, it’s tedious to send out notices to the parents of students in subjects like biology that may have a lesson on genetics because the lesson mentions testicles, ovaries, sperm, ova, fertilization, etc.,” he said Micah Hill, Kalispell School District Superintendent.

State Senator Cary Smith (R-Billings), who sponsored the bill, did not respond to requests for comment on the bill’s impact on schools. Before the state Senate voted on the bill in 2021, Smith said the law was necessary because today’s comprehensive sex education encompasses much more than just biology and anatomy.

“This type of sex education addresses many other issues, like feelings, what is normal, what is not normal, and often these teachings are at odds with what we are trying to teach our children at home and in our churches. ” he said.

The Kalispell School District found that the law applied to health education; science education involving anatomy, genetics or reproduction; advanced psychology courses whose curriculum includes human development; certain social science classes; and many more.

“Given the broad definition that has emerged from state legislatures, there really is no end to what could be considered,” Hill said.

Hill said Kalispell schools and teachers send the notifications and that he has not sent the number so far this school year. “I don’t track where teachers are in their curriculum pace, so it’s probably a matter of time when it hasn’t,” he said.

No school district has announced changes to its curriculum as a result of SB 99. Local school boards generally set the curriculum through a public process that invites community members to provide feedback. Schools also rely heavily on the class-level content standards set by the statewide authority on education, the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

Also in response to SB 99, schools are consulting attorneys and combing material for mentions of issues falling within the legal definition of human sexuality.

In addition to working with administrators and legal teams to determine which lessons might trigger an SB 99 notification, teachers must be careful that classroom discussions do not veer into areas that require notification when none is provided.

“On the teacher side, it feels like an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and overstatement by the state to tuck into locally controlled and elected school boards,” Hill said.

Smith said during the 2021 debate that the measure doesn’t tell schools what to teach. “We’re just telling them to let us know as parents and grandparents what’s being taught so we can decide if our kids should take those classes,” he said.

Missoula County Public Schools interim superintendent Russ Lodge said the district has been sending out notifications to parents since the start of the school year. However, he cannot say how many or how many examples, because he is not directly involved in the process of the individual schools. He said he would like his district, like Billings, to eventually include all SB 99 notifiable issues in a district-wide letter sent out each August.

“Whoever wrote it obviously expanded the definition on purpose, and it covers a wide area,” he said.

Aside from the law’s impact on seemingly minor issues, critics have said that SB 99 threatens to stifle important classroom discussions about sexual health, gender identity and personal development. Critics also said it could reduce the number of students learning about contraception – knowledge that has been shown to help reduce teen pregnancy rates – and LGBTQ+ rights. The law could also prevent teachers from including certain subjects in their classes or prevent them from freely responding to students’ questions or comments, the critics said.

The Montana Department of Education requires that schools’ sex education programs “reflect community values” and be abstinence-based and age-appropriate.

Pamela Kohler, associate professor of global health at the University of Washington, said the evidence “shows overwhelmingly that abstinence education alone is not effective in preventing sexual activity or pregnancy” and that “many of those at highest risk for unwanted pregnancies and STDs receive little or no sex education.”

According to the 2021 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey, more than 40% of high school students in Montana have had sex, and just under half of them do not use condoms regularly, increasing their risk of becoming pregnant and developing STDs. A University of Montana study published in 2017 found that more than 80% of college students were unaware of basic information about HIV transmission and prevention.

The failure to teach about gender identity, sexual health, intimacy and other elements of human sexuality means young people may struggle to find accurate information, said Michelle Slaybaugh, director of social impact and strategic communications at SIECUS, an organization which advocates for comprehensive sex education. And it makes students more vulnerable when they come to terms with their sexual or gender identity, Slaybaugh added.

“Education about relationships and sexuality has been shown to protect young people from bullying, help them manage their emotions, focus on school and develop the enduring skills they need for healthy, strong relationships,” Slaybaugh said.

SB 99 also prohibits individuals who work in a clinic or organization that provides abortion from speaking or teaching in schools statewide, even if their teaching is unrelated to abortion. This provision may have resulted in the termination of at least one long-standing relationship between a school district and a provider.

Bridgercare, a Bozeman-based reproductive health nonprofit that this year defeated the state health department in managing funding for the state’s Title X family planning program, has been a partner with Bozeman public schools for 25 years, to provide students with comprehensive sex education. The non-abortion organization was not invited to teach on the Bozeman campus this school year, according to Bridgercare officials.

Bozeman School District Superintendent Casey Bertram declined to be questioned about the law and Bridgercare’s ties to the district.

“Whether the parents like it or not, teenagers are going through the challenges of adolescence and all the emotional challenges that it can bring,” said Cami Armijo-Grover, Bridgercare’s director of education. “The best thing we can do for our children is to educate them about how their bodies work and give them tools to deal with the feelings and challenges that come with puberty and relationships.”

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