Alaska Senate's sex-ed bill takes rights away from parents, local school districts

This week the Alaska Senate passed Senate Bill 89 and held a hearing on Senate Bill 191, extreme and misguided pieces of legislation that would dramatically restrict the sexual health education options available to communities across the state.

As parents of both current and former public school students in Anchorage, we must emphatically oppose SB 89 and SB 191. Sexual health decisions should be up to individual communities, and the schools and parents within them. It should not be up to politicians in Juneau.

The benefits of comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education are well-documented. It leads to teenagers making better choices about relationships and sexuality. For our kids and our families, it's a no-brainer. We want our children to have all the information they need about how to be safe.

Increased comprehensive sex ed can help our state reverse its troubling trends. Alaska leads the nation in rates of chlamydia, which teenagers contract at a rate three times the state average. Alaska is fifth in the nation in gonorrhea, and its teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

Even worse is our state's record on sexual abuse. Alaska's child sexual assault rate is six times the national average, and the rate of reported rape is the highest in the country.

These rates amount to a public health crisis, and the culprit is easy to find: Less than a quarter of Alaska schools are teaching the recommended information about healthy relationships, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy prevention. These less than adequate efforts cause Alaska to rank worse than 46 other states when it comes to educating our youth.

Our youth need more information, not less, to reduce their chances of contracting chlamydia, causing an unintended pregnancy, and entering into an unhealthy relationship.

Here's how SB 89 works: currently sexual health education programs must be opt-out, and the bill would turn them into opt-in. Parents like us already have the power to remove their children from programs they disagree with, so SB 89 would just further harm students whose parents are unengaged in their education.

Additionally, SB 89 blocks any organization providing abortions from also providing sex ed. This part is aimed at one organization in particular: Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood, separate from their health care services, is the largest nongovernmental provider of sexual health education in the state. And SB 191 takes it a step further by putting penalties on school districts and teachers for even talking to Planned Parenthood.

SB 89 and SB 191 strip the rights of parents and communities who want their children to receive accurate, unbiased, and evidence-based information. Local communities and parents have the right to invite trusted partners like Planned Parenthood into the classroom if they choose, and these partners are invited because the state simply does not have the resources to do it themselves. Until the state steps up in providing medically accurate sexual health education to all students, communities will rely on Planned Parenthood and other partners. SB 89 and 191 take away that choice.

In a time when our education system is facing unprecedented budget cuts, our legislators should not be limiting districts' options for local programming, and should instead be encouraging districts to use every resource available to educate students.

Fixing Alaska's catastrophic record on sexually transmitted diseases, unintended teen pregnancies and sexual abuse will take hard work from everyone to find the right answers for our state. SB 89 and SB 191 are not part of those answers. They are a roadblock, not a solution, to a healthier Alaska. As concerned parents, we urge the House of Representatives and Gov. Bill Walker to stop this bill in its tracks.

Teresa Zimmer is the parent of a current public school student in Anchorage. Ken Winterberger is the parent of former Anchorage public school students.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.