Indiana bill would make schools disclose details about sex ed classes

A teacher at the front of a classroom points to students in red shirts who have their hands raised to volunteer for an assignment.
Students volunteer for an classroom assignment in Indiana on communicating effectively about topics like consent and contraception. While taught in some schools, sex ed is not required in Indiana schools. (Aleksandra Appleton/Chalkbeat Indiana)

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Indiana lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a bill requiring schools to seek school board approval for their sex education materials, as well as publicize information about who teaches the courses and when.

Sex ed is not required in Indiana schools, despite evidence linking such courses to improved behavioral outcomes among teens. Schools are required only to teach lessons about HIV and AIDS, and if they do choose to offer additional sex ed, they must emphasize abstinence.

Still, many schools do offer sex ed, sometimes contracting with outside organizations that offer lessons on consent and healthy relationships alongside reproduction and contraception.

The legislation from two GOP lawmakers marks the latest attempt by the Indiana legislators to shape how schools should approach sex, sexuality, and gender. Last year, they restricted the teaching of human sexuality in the earliest grades. And a state law that took effect last school year requires schools to disclose students’ requests to use different names or pronouns, prompting criticism from the LGBTQ community and mixed reactions from districts.

Supporters of the bill say it’s appropriate for schools to be especially sensitive about sex ed in particular, and that the proposal could defuse political tensions. Critics say it could shut down conversations related to sexuality and run afoul of federal law. Observers pointed out that some of the bill’s provisions are already part of state law.

Under Senate Bill 128, schools would need to seek approval from their school boards before using curriculum materials related to sex ed. They would also have to share details like which grade levels will receive sex ed lessons and when, whether male and female students will be taught together, and whether the class is led by a male or female instructor.

The bill would also require schools to post all this information on their websites.

The bill passed the Senate Education and Career Development Committee on Wednesday on an 8-5 vote, with GOP Sen. Dan Dernulc joining the four Democrats on the committee in voting no.

The bill was authored by Sen. Gary Byrne and Sen. Jeff Raatz, chairman of the Senate education committee.

Byrne said publishing the information would help parents decide whether they want to allow their children to take the lessons. Indiana already allows parents to opt their students out of sex education.

Byrne said the bill targeted sex ed — and not other subjects — because of the sensitive nature of the subject and families’ differing views on when it should be taught.

“I think putting the local school boards in the driver’s seat is an issue that makes good sense,” Byrne said.

The bill received support from the Indiana School Boards Association for strengthening local control and parental engagement. But Terry Spradlin, the association’s executive director, said its provisions requiring school board approval and public posting of curriculum were already part of Indiana law.

Other supporters said the bill could prevent turmoil at school board meetings by making board members aware of what’s being taught.

But critics of the bill, including advocates for gender diversity and sex education, said school boards already have the ability to review and approve curriculum. They also say a state mandate could create an additional burden on teachers and school administrators and ultimately serve as a deterrent to offering sex ed at all.

“This is a bill requiring every school district in the state to now hold hearings on very volatile issues in which a small number of folks can come and take over those meetings, that also allows a small number of school board members to inject their own political beliefs into sex education,” said Chris Daley, executive director of the ACLU of Indiana.

Daley also called the proposal an unfunded mandate.

Emma Vosicky of Gender Nexus, a group that advocates for gender diverse people in Indiana, said the ambiguous language of the bill could create a chilling effect on broader discussions of gender, including on children’s books about LGBTQ families.

Furthermore, the requirement to approve things like the gender of the person teaching a sex ed course leaves districts at risk of violating federal mandates prohibiting sex discrimination, she said.

Sen. Shelli Yoder, a Bloomington Democrat, said that requirement could also be discriminatory toward teachers who identify as a gender other than male or female.

Tammy Carter, CEO of Lifesmart Youth, a nonprofit organization that provides sex ed to 26,000 students in 122 Indiana schools, said the bill’s requirements are redundant, as the organization already meets with school boards and parents and posts its full curriculum material on its own portal.

Additionally, the bill would force her organization to release proprietary information to schools to post online under the bill, Carter said.

Other efforts have sought to expand access to medically accurate sex education, especially in the wake of Indiana’s near-total abortion ban.

Both GOP and Democratic lawmakers have previously authored bills to require schools to provide information about conception and contraception if they choose to teach sex ed. These bills have not been taken up, and similar bills have not been filed this year.

You can track SB 128 on the General Assembly’s website.

Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at aappleton@chalkbeat.org.

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