Indiana lawmakers advance bill banning education on ‘human sexuality’ through the third grade

people rally with signs
Hundreds rally against a sex education bill at the Indiana Statehouse on Feb. 20, 2023. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Indiana’s 2023 legislative session is under way, and state legislators have introduced more than 100 new education bills and bills impacting schools and students. For the latest Indiana education news, sign up for Chalkbeat Indiana’s free newsletter here.

This article originally published in the Indiana Capital Chronicle.

More than four hours of “We say gay!” chants echoed through the Indiana Statehouse Monday as hundreds rallied against a bill that would prohibit Hoosier educators from talking about “human sexuality” through 3rd grade.

The latest draft of the proposal also targets transgender students by prohibiting school employees from using a name or pronoun that is inconsistent with a student’s sex without a parent’s written consent. 

Schools would additionally be required to notify parents if a student requests to change their name or pronouns.

The bill advanced along party lines 9-4 to the full House. The chamber must approve the bill and send it to the Senate by Feb. 27, or it dies.

Lawmakers on the House Education Committee met Monday to debate House Bill 1608, authored by Rep. Michelle Davis, R-Greenwood. The proposal is reminiscent of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law that has been described by some as one of the most “hateful” pieces of legislation in the country.

“The goal of House Bill 1608 is to empower Hoosier parents by reinforcing that they’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to introducing sensitive topics to their children,” Davis said, noting that the bill is a response to “numerous concerns of parents in her district.

“Parents know what’s best for their children, and their authority should not be superseded by teachers and school administrators,” she continued.

Earlier language in Davis’ bill banned K-3 classroom instruction or discussion about sexual orientation, gender fluidity, gender roles, gender identity, gender expression and gender stereotypes.

The committee nixed that list of topics and instead changed the bill’s language to bar younger kids from being taught about “human sexuality.”

Davis said that encompasses “the way people experience and express themselves sexually.” She noted that the change intends to prevent sex education from being taught to younger Hoosier students.

Davis conceded that Indiana schools do not currently teach sex education to students that young. The introduction of those concepts usually starts in the fourth grade, according to state standards. 

Bill targets pronouns

Education advocates argued Monday that the bill, as amended, is an “attack” on LGBTQ Hoosier youth — especially transgender students.

A provision to the legislation prohibits schools and teachers from using “a name, pronoun, title, or other word to identify a student that is inconsistent with the student’s sex” assigned at birth unless a parent requests the change in writing. 

The bill advanced along party lines 9-4 to the full House. The chamber must approve the bill and send it to the Senate by Feb. 27, or it dies.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, said that the pronoun language, specifically, “makes the bill far less palatable.”

Still, Republicans on the committee maintained that the bill would not apply to curriculum for academic standards or prevent students from having private, one-on-one conversations with a school counselor, social worker or therapist.

But the bill isn’t so cut and dry. 

Language in the bill reads that “a school, an employee or staff member of a school, or a third party vendor used by a school to provide instruction” can not provide any instruction on “human sexuality.”

Additional amendments adopted to the bill on Monday clarify that teachers — if asked — are allowed to answer students’ questions about “human sexuality” and other topics. It’s not exactly clear what educators are or are not allowed to say, however.

“(A teacher can respond) any way that is the correct answer … You can have two moms, you can have two dads, you can have a mom and a dad. The rest of the discussion should be with the parents,” Davis said, when asked what a teacher would be able to say to a first grader who asks why a peer has two moms.

Private schools were also carved out of the latest draft of the bill.

Majority of testimony in opposition

Only a handful of people testified Monday in support of the bill.

That included Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, who said K-3 teachers should be focused on improving dismal math and literacy scores, not “unnecessary controversies.”

“Parents are free to talk to children about these issues. But when the teacher, counselor or guest speaker does it, all that will do is cause heartache for school administrators and the school board, at some point,” Clark said.

Damon Clevenger, a music teacher in Lawrence Township in Indianapolis, said, “As a young LGBTQ+ child, I was constantly a target for bullies and close-minded people who would rather isolate me than accept me for who I am. I honestly don’t believe I wouldn’t be standing here today if it had not been for my teachers who saw me accepted me, and the proud, out educators who let me know that I was not alone in this world. This bill would take that away from our children today.”

He also promised that students will always have a safe space in his classroom.

Jennifer Laughlin of the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA) said current state law already protects students of all ages from “obscene materials” — which is what some of the bill’s supporters say they want erased from classrooms.

“This bill is about scoring political points, rather than addressing the real issue,” she said. “Regardless of this bill’s merit, it’s based on a bad faith argument from the start. This bill brings to light issues that are a part of a national trend designed to sow doubt and further a false narrative of our great public schools.”

Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, held that state lawmakers should not “create a universal standard” that imposes Christian values and beliefs on all Hoosiers.

“The bottom line is that we’re here in education and in government to serve people … and to get so upset about pronouns … that we lose the educational focus — we’re here to educate children, not to sanctify them,” Smith said. “We need to make schools inviting … we’re creating a problem that we don’t need to create.”

Paula Davis, mom of three school-age children, an educator, and a chapter president of Moms for Liberty, disagreed.

“This is not about whether or not I agree with homosexual lifestyle. This is about my right as a parent to guarantee my children are not being told the morals and values of their parents are wrong.”

She added that the bill “is guaranteeing that my children do not have an educator introduce them to a topic that I do not believe should be discussed outside of my presence. It is creating a neutral space so children are not forced to participate in something that is so divisive, especially when they may not feel like they have a voice or the power to challenge the teacher.”

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Niki Kelly for questions: Follow Indiana Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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