State board recommends against group’s effort to shield students from ‘rogue sex ed’

Various contraception items rest against a pink background.
Sex education is in the crosshairs in Michigan as a new conservative nonprofit launches a campaign to have parents exempt their children. (Science Photo Library / Getty Images)

The State Board of Education is pushing back against a coordinated campaign to shield children from school lessons and conversations about sex, sexuality, gender, and abortion.

Members voted Tuesday along party lines to ask local school boards to require parents to use existing methods if they want to exclude their children from sex education in Michigan public schools.

An opt-out form from Great Schools Initiative, a new Michigan nonprofit, is encouraging parents to have their children excluded from “rogue sex ed.” 

But, the board, which has no enforcement authority, can only issue recommendations against the coordinated campaign.

The board recommended that local districts reject any third-party forms as “invalid, irrelevant, and inconsequential.” 

Board President Pamela Pugh introduced the resolution in response to the opt-out campaign.

The Great Schools form includes a long list of topics the nonprofit says parents can exclude their children from. Those include information about abortion, “self-pleasure,” gender fluidity, explicit sex acts, family planning, condoms, gender-neutral bathrooms, and more. The form includes opt-outs to ensure teachers don’t display LGBTQ+ flags, provide access to library books about sexuality and gender, or discuss gender-neutral bathrooms.

The group is affiliated with the Thomas More Society, a conservative law firm that uses litigation to try to shape laws around social issues such as abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, and prayer in schools.

Its effort appears to be an outgrowth of debates over parents’ rights that dominated school board meetings and political campaigns in Michigan and across the country last year.

The Detroit Free Press reported that some districts have been receiving Great Schools Initiative’s forms and have been redirecting parents to follow opt-out procedures already established locally.

Pugh said the group is trying to confuse parents, to overwhelm school districts with a barrage of opt-out forms, to threaten lawsuits to intimidate teachers, and to advance a discriminatory “Don’t Say Gay” agenda.  

“They want to cause so much disruption that it’s going to cause our school districts to just halt everything, and where does that leave our children?” Pugh asked in an interview during a break in Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s a way to pit parents against educators, and to cause fear.”

State law already requires districts to notify parents before offering sex education and includes provisions for children to be excluded without penalty.

Great Schools Initiative did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Its website urges parents to opt out of “rogue sex ed” and “hyper-sexualization occurring in your child’s school today.” It includes a printable opt-out form for parents to submit to schools, an online form for reporting violations to Great Schools Initiative, and instructions for filing complaints against school districts.

“If the degree or quantity of such violations has become unacceptably egregious, legal action may be the remedy,” according to the website.  

Republican board member Tom McMillin of Oakland Township, who voted against the resolution, said parents should be able to use any form they want so they can tailor their opt-out requests.

“People have different family values, different family circumstances,” he said during Tuesday’s meeting. He said it “goes against parental rights for government schools to decide what parents are allowed to do and not to do.”

Republican board member Nikki Snyder of Dexter, who also voted against the resolution, said the issue is broader than what form is used to exempt children out of sex education.

Parents “want their kids to go to school to learn the basics of education, and they want the right to opt out of certain topics that were never meant to be taught in school.”

Pugh’s resolution stipulates that “while the decisions of parents or legal guardians to remove their child from sex education classes must be respected, the established processes of school districts for opting out of classes must also be preserved for consistency, continuity, and accountability, solely through the use of a district’s legally drafted and legally binding forms.”

The Michigan Association of School Boards supports the resolution.

“I appreciate what GSI is trying to do but there’s already a process for parents to follow and a form that districts use,” MASB lobbyist Jennifer Smith said in a telephone interview after the board meeting. “The state board is trying to encourage districts to follow the law, and we would encourage the same. The tools are already there for parents that have a concern.”

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org.

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