Rep. Jim Gotto (R) of Hermitage, TN/ The Tennessean
By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean
Tennessee lawmakers took up a bill Wednesday that would tighten
the state's abstinence-first sex education standards, turning to the
measure after a long controversy over discussing homosexuality in the
A House subcommittee approved a bill that would narrow
what activities would be considered abstinent and would create new legal
penalties for instructors who encourage students to go outside those
Described as the first update to the state's abstinence-based program in two decades, the measure would make it harder for the Tennessee State Board of Education to make changes to Tennessee's sex education program.
bill comes in the wake of controversies in Metro and Knox County
schools over teaching that some parents said encouraged risky behavior.
The measure is seen by some as a companion - and by others as an
alternative - to the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill that would restrict
discussions about homosexuality before high school.
House Bill 3621
would require sex education programs to discourage "gateway sexual
activity" that stops short of actual intercourse. The measure would
require sex ed programs to focus on "risk avoidance" rather than
reducing the odds of pregnancy or contracting a sexually transmitted
Republican Rep. Jim Gotto of Hermitage,
the measure's sponsor, said the bill is needed because Tennessee
continues to rank among the highest states in the nation for teen
pregnancies and STDs. Gotto said some of the blame lies in the lack of
clarity about what is meant by abstinence in the state's 1989 sex
"There are practically no guidelines in there," he
said. "There are situations where the program that is being taught is
not abstinence-centered, and the reason for that is the lack of
definition in the law."
Tennessee school districts frequently partner with outside groups to teach sex ed, relying on their expertise to handle a subject that many teachers are not trained to deal with. But that practice has sparked controversy.
years ago, parents objected when students at Hillsboro High School in
Nashville were instructed, using a plastic model, on how to apply a
condom. Then last year, the Knox County Public Schools discontinued
outside instruction after a presentation led by Planned Parenthood.
bill would let outside groups continue teaching sex ed, but it also
would let parents sue if their children receive instruction that they
believe violates the abstinence education law. Courts could assess
damages, attorney's fees and a $500 fine for each student if a judge
rules in parents' favor.
Regular school teachers would be exempt from such suits.
provision is meant to discourage instruction from groups that do not
focus solely on abstinence, said Jeff Teague, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee.
teach abstinence to the appropriate use of contraception," he said.
"They want abstinence only and only talking about abstinence."
Planned Parenthood is barred by law from discussing abortion in schools.
Gary Nixon, executive director of the state Board of Education, told
lawmakers Wednesday that HB 3621 would make it harder for school
districts to partner with outside groups. But he said the bill would
have little impact on what students are taught.
"I think this bill
pretty much aligns with what we have today in the health and wellness
standards," he said. "I don't think it'd cause us to have to change very
much at all."
By writing those standards in law, HB 3621 would
force the state Board of Education to go back to the legislature if it
wanted to change the state sex ed curriculum, said David Fowler,
president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee.
curriculum frameworks that are established by the board can be changed
by the board, and that is an unelected, appointed body," he said.
'Don't Say Gay' ties
Gotto filed his bill weeks ago, but it gained prominence this month
when sponsors of the "Don't Say Gay" bill, House Bill 229, announced
they would delay their measure until the end of the legislative session
so Gotto's legislation could be debated first.
One of the main
criticisms of the "Don't Say Gay" bill, which said students in
elementary and middle school should be taught only about
heterosexuality, has been that it would muddy Tennessee's sex education
standards. Currently, students are not taught anything about sexual
intercourse - heterosexual or homosexual - until the ninth grade.
House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery said Wednesday that Gotto's bill might negate the need for the "Don't Say Gay" bill. But HB 229's main sponsor, Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, said he still plans to pursue it, though he may amend it to avoid conflicts between the two bills.
all of our concerns have been addressed, so we do plan to run it," he
said. "We'll be changing it some ... to make sure there are no unintended