House Education Committee offers critique of Dunleavy sex ed bill

House Education Committee offers critique of Gov. Dunleavy sex-ed bill
Published: Mar. 30, 2023 at 9:32 AM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - A hearing was held Wednesday for HB 105, which proposes amendments to education statutes to increase parental involvement in their child’s education.

Acting commissioner of the Department of Education and Early Development Heidi Teshner provided an overview of the bill, along with former Anchorage School District Superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop, who testified telephonically to the committee, bringing decades of experience as a senior leader for public education in the state.

According to its supporters, the primary focus of the bill is to create meaningful notice and consent requirements that allow parents to have more control over their child’s education — specifically related to human reproduction, gender identity and sexual matters.

Opponents have argued that the bill would stifle a student’s ability to choose for themselves how they identify and would hamper the process that young people go through in socializing and accepting others.

The bill requires school districts to grant parental access to school records and develop policies requiring written consent before providing instruction related to these topics.

Dunleavy argued when he presented the legislation on March 7 that it addresses concerns related to the presentation of content that may not be age-appropriate for all children by placing these matters directly in the hands of parents.

The bill also requires affirmative agreement to sensitive and personal content involving gender identity, human reproduction and sexual matters.

It explicitly prohibits sex education for children below fourth grade and allows parents to decide the names of an enrolled student, which many opponents argue will take away from the student’s ability to make their own choices on who they are.

Additionally, it bars schools from withholding information about students from parents or legal guardians in most circumstances.

Sex education is not mandatory in Alaska’s public schools, and the new bill seeks parental rights to control what is taught in classrooms.

The hearing aimed to clear up some misconceptions about the bill. Supporters say it would not prevent curriculum that teaches about sexual abuse or dating violence from being taught, such as what is taught from Bree’s Law. It was unclear at the time of publication if the bill would indeed prevent teaching on dating violence.

Several individuals testified virtually during the hearing, all of whom identified in the hearing as residents of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

One of the controversies raised during the hearing was the bill’s impact on Bree’s Law, which makes dating violence education a part of middle and high school curriculum, in addition to other sex abuse awareness training.

Testimony confirmed that parents can opt out of these types of potentially life-saving instruction, as well as sex education.

“It’s still going to be an opt-out situation for the personal safety and Bree’s Law, which is in middle and high school about healthy relationships?” inquired Democrat Rep. Andi Story of Juneau.

Teshner replied that this assumption was correct.

Story raised concerns regarding the chance that this could empower abusers to isolate children from knowledge that could save their lives, in exceptional cases.

“We know from our statistics that 90% of the kids who have been sexually abused, it’s not a ‘stranger danger.’ It is someone in their family that they know, or someone that their family knows,” Story said. “That is why we’ve deemed it — I believe in passing the statutes prior — that it is so important for kids to have this personal safety information that is age appropriate.”

Another issue brought up by legislators was how HB 105 could get tangled up in Alaska’s mandatory reporting laws.

One provision in the proposed legislation states that parents have the right to all student records unless a “reasonably prudent person” would believe that disclosure of the information would result in child abuse or neglect. For children under fourth-grade age, there’s no discussion of sex education or related matters whatsoever.

Rep. Jason Ruffridge (R-Kenai) expressed concern about the language around not having conversations about some of the sensitive topics that are related to sex and gender, but are not about human reproduction in particular.

“My concern actually is in the language around not having some of these conversations for fourth grade and under,” Ruffridge said about restricting sex abuse awareness to upper-level elementary and middle school children. “I’m concerned that maybe with 105, with the way it’s currently written, we would not be able to have those conversations for first, second and third grade.”

The Alaska Family Council, a proponent of HB 105, released a statement Wednesday afternoon encouraging members of the public to stand with the organization in support of the legislation, and said parents have fundamental rights when it comes to their children.

The statement by AFC President Jim Minnery included support for parents having control of names their children will use at school.