Thursday, February 14, 2013

Legislation to fix Colorado sex education standards to get House debate Thursday

A Denver Democrat will ask the House Thursday to approve legislation that would clarify what the state's public schools must teach about human sexuality.

The bill aims to eliminate disparities among districts and encourage schools to give children the knowledge they need to avoid pregnancy even if they become sexually active.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, argued in a committee hearing last week that the measure is necessary to advance public health and to protect teenagers.

"Colorado youth still face many barriers in obtaining the medically accurate information and resources they need to make informed and responsible decisions and lead healthy lifestyles," she said.

Duran's proposal would not preclude instruction about abstinence.

“Abstinence is incredibly important. If you do not want unintended pregnancy, if you do not want to see the transmission of disease, then abstain from engaging in sexual activity,” Duran explained.

However, Duran pointed out that educators also need tools to help students who do choose to become sexually active.

"For those who choose to do so, we should be able to have an approach that really teaches them how to protect themselves," she said.

At the core of the legislation is a provision that conditions compliance on receipt of federal grant money.

The money would be dispersed to school districts or charter schools by the state's Department of Public Health and Environment.

"This is not an unfunded mandate," Duran said.

One notable feature of HB 13-1081 is a clause that puts the burden on parents to excuse their children from sex education classes. Under current law a student is not permitted to learn about human reproductive behavior in school unless a parent gives permission in advance.

Republicans on the House Health, Insurance, and Environment Committee voted as a block against the bill last Thursday.

Former House majority leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, led the GOP opposition to the legislation.

Among several arguments she advanced was one to the effect that any benefit of teaching children about the reproductive physiology of the human body is outweighed by the prospect that doing so may offend the religious sensibilities of some individuals.

Centennial Republican Spencer Swalm attacked the bill on grounds that it limits school districts to grants that advance the goal of comprehensive sex education. Duran disputed that argument, pointing out that the proposed statutory language would not prevent districts from working with external organizations that advocate for abstinence-only education.

The legislature last enacted a sex education bill in 2007. That one, however, did not require curricula used by public schools in the state to address the reality of homosexual and bisexual behavior among humans.

HB 13-1081 would correct that oversight, requiring that sex education programs in the state's public schools be "culturally sensitive."

That requirement, as well as the overall approach of the legislation, is based on a 2012 report on youth sexual activity issued by the state's Department of Public Health and Environment.

The sponsor of the 2007 bill, Nancy Todd, is now a senator from an Aurora-area district and is carrying HB 13-1081 in the Senate this year.

If the bill is approved on "second reading" Thursday then it must first be approved in another House vote before moving to the Senate.