Starting next year, public schools in Hawaii will be required to offer sex education to students — a big shift from the current policy that allows individual schools to decide whether to teach the subject.

The state Board of Education voted 5-1 in favor of the policy changes Tuesday afternoon after listening to lengthy and contentious public testimony from more than a dozen community members, parents and activists.

The shift was heralded by advocates of comprehensive sex education as a “big step” for Hawaii, while opponents like conservative state Rep. Bob McDermott called the decision a “travesty.”

Until Tuesday, Hawaii was one of 10 states that did not mandate that students be offered sex education or taught about HIV and AIDS.

Board Chair Don Horner cast the sole “no” vote.

BOE Chair Don Horner listens to testimony about sex  education.  16 june 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

BOE Chair Don Horner listens to testimony about sex education Tuesday.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“This ensures that every Hawaii public school student will receive accurate, complete and life-saving information,” said Sonia Blackiston, director of education and training for Planned Parenthood of Hawaii, adding that she was “elated” with the board’s decision.

Although the board decision is finally made — public debate over the proposed changes started in April — the DOE is now faced with the tough task of implementing the policy for the coming school year and educating parents about what the change really means.

A Controversial Issue

Sex education has been a particularly heated topic in Hawaii since the controversy over the University of Hawaii’s Pono Choices curriculum.

Developed specifically for students in Hawaii, it came under fire last year from conservative lawmakers like McDermott and some parents for its treatment of gay couples and sex, including references to the anus as a genital.

The program was briefly suspended, and several changes were made before it was approved as a curriculum choice for the 2014-15 school year.

The BOE had started looking at updating its sex education policy well before the Pono Choices issue arose, as part a comprehensive audit of board policies, board member Nancy Budd said.

Representative Bob McDermott testifies in BOE hearing on sex education.  16 june 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rep. Bob McDermott testifies against the new sexual health education policy at Tuesday’s BOE meeting.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

When the board first took up proposed changes for mandating sex education and expanding what information students would be provided in April, McDermott and many parents voiced strong opposition.

“This new ‘comprehensive’ approach remains medically inaccurate and continues to push social engineering over the health and safety of our children,” McDermott said.

Since April, misconceptions about what the policy would do have abounded. 

On Tuesday, several parents and community members testifying before the board voiced concerns that sexual health education would lead to schools encouraging students to be sexually active, teaching their children about foreplay and promoting a specific ideology.

Those contentions were disputed by board members and advocates of the policy change.

Comprehensive sex ed has nothing to do with encouraging kids to have sex, advocates said. Rather, it’s about providing information that encourages abstinence but also gives students the information they need to be safe should they become sexually active, they said.

“There is this fear that Planned Parenthood has taken over the DOE, but that’s not what this policy is about,” board member Jim Williams said.

Advocates of the policy also point to some statistics in Hawaii as evidence of a need for better education. In 2013, the state had the lowest reported condom use among sexually active teens in the nation. Hawaii also has the 10th-highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the nation, and the 12th-highest rate of chlamydia infections, according to the DOE.

Big Changes Coming

Under the revised policy, parents can choose to keep their children from participating in any sex education course.

For the last year, parents have had to actively sign their children up for sex ed in schools where the topic was offered. The DOE had requested that the board keep sex ed as an “opt-in” choice for parents, but the board overruled the request.

Schools will also have to make information about the sex education curriculum available to parents and post it on the school’s website prior to the start of any instruction.

The BOE did not vote on any particular curriculum as a part of the policy changes. There are currently half a dozen sex education curriculums approved by the DOE — including a slightly revised version of Pono Choices — and it will remain the department’s job to vet and approve materials.

Board of Education member Nancy Budd gestures while asking questions as public testifies about sex education.  16 june 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

State Board of Education member Nancy Budd asks a question during public testimony about sex education.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Any instruction is supposed to emphasize abstinence as the best way to prevent pregnancy and avoid sexually transmitted diseases. The curriculum, however, must also include information on contraceptives and be age-appropriate and medically accurate.

An example of age-appropriate sexual health education for young elementary school students would be learning the names of body parts and the difference between “good touch and bad touch,” said Judith Clark, executive director of Hawaii Youth Services Network, which works with several groups to provide sex education in Hawaii.

The challenge now, Clark said, will be in implementing the changes.

In addition to selecting a DOE-vetted curriculum at each school, the district will also likely need to provide training for teachers, Clark said. And then there are the financial implications of making sure there are enough copies of the curriculum on hand.

“We have the policy in place. Now we have to get to the logistics of how to make that happen in every school,” Clark said.

The DOE does not currently track which schools offer sex education or which curriculum they use if they do, so it’s also unknown how much training and preparation will be needed.

“We don’t know the implications at this point, but we will before the next school year,” DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said.

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