TN legislators discuss 'risk avoidance' abstinence plan

7:51 AM, Mar 22, 2012   |    comments
Rep. Jim Gotto (R) of Hermitage, TN/ The Tennessean
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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 classroom.

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 bounds.

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.

The 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 disease.

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 education law.

"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.

Two 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.

Gotto's 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.

The 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.

"We 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.

Little change

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.

"The 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.

"Not 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 consequences."

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