Commentary

Gov. Walker, please veto HB 156 to keep Alaska youth healthy

Earlier this month, the Legislature passed a bill to severely restrict sexual health education in Alaska, sending House Bill 156 to Gov. Bill Walker for further action. This presents the governor with one of the most important tests of social policy in his first term. Vetoing HB 156 will show that Walker is the true independent who ran in 2014. Letting it become law would align him with some of the most extreme and divisive politicians in our state. I join students, teachers, and parents throughout Alaska as we call on the governor to veto this bill.

Students across Alaska rely on comprehensive, medically accurate sexual health education to give them the information they need about safe sex and healthy relationships. HB 156 would impose unprecedented restrictions on sex ed, beyond any other academic subject. There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education.

The need for sex education in Alaska is clear. We lead the nation in rates of chlamydia and are near the top in rates of gonorrhea. We are well above the national average on teen pregnancy. Rates of sexual assault and rape are among the nation's worst.

I've been both a parent and grandparent of students in Alaska public schools, and I know that we need more sex ed, not less.

If you're having déjà vu, yes, one year ago this month Sen. Mike Dunleavy hijacked the Alaska Safe Children's Act. This important bipartisan measure (also known as Erin's Law and Bree's Law) was written to reduce sexual assault and violence. Dunleavy nearly killed the bill by inserting language to restrict sex ed. Luckily, he failed — but vowed he would return in 2016.

And return he did. This legislative session seemed focused on attacking sex ed. There were 17 separate legislative hearings on the subject. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies. In an April hearing, Dunleavy characterized "sexuality" as a "new concept" that a lot of people are learning about.

The first attempt, the unconstitutional Senate Bill 89, sought to block Planned Parenthood from providing sex ed. It failed. The second attempt, the unconstitutional Senate Bill 191, was even worse. It didn't get a vote. The third attempt, a proposed amendment to HB 156, would have blocked all doctors, nurses, community educators and even sexual assault survivors from entering a classroom. It was so unpopular that it lasted less than 48 hours.

HB 156 is where we've ended up — reclassifying sex ed to make it the most rigorously regulated subject in the state, applying an unfair level of scrutiny present in no other part of our education system. School boards would be required to approve not just every guest speaker in the classroom, but also every single sheet of paper. This heavy burden is meant to do only one thing: stop sex ed for students in Alaska. HB 156 would institute some of the strictest standards on sex ed in the country and leave young people uninformed and at risk.

Gov. Walker ran in 2014 as an independent candidate, taking a middle road. I was proud to support him. There is nothing middle-of-the-road about HB 156. This legislation lacks common sense and is grounded in cynicism and fear. We can support our youth by stopping this bill.

Gov. Walker, please veto HB 156.

Susan Reeves lives in Anchorage and has been a parent and grandparent of students in Alaska public schools.

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