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Non-religious 'opt-out' for sex education proposed

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 17. 2013 1:39PM

CONCORD - A sponsor of legislation to allow parents to "opt out" of sex education classes for their children says it will mean parents will no longer have to claim religious objections or pay for alternative courses of study to keep their kids out of objectionable courses.

House Bill 161 would require that schools excuse students from sex education or health classes if a parent requests it, with no further explanation required.

Under current law, parents have two alternatives if they disapprove of the content of health or sex education classes. They can use one law that allows a family to opt out of a course on religious grounds. Or, they can use a provision enacted last year over the veto of then-Gov. John Lynch that allows parents to opt out of any class as long as they raise a specific objection and propose an alternative, for which the family would foot the bill.

"In the past, parents had to lie and say it was religious when it was not," said Rep. Ralph Boehm, R-Litchfield. "The parents may say they have a religious objection and then say later that another child is mature enough to take the course - then they get asked about it."

A similar proposal was passed by the House last year, but was gutted on the floor of the Senate by the measure allowing an opt-out from all classes if the parents pay for alternative coursework. Under the proposal aired Thursday, objecting to a health or sex education class would carry no financial burden.

"The burden of cost is on the school, not the parent," said Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, a supporter of the measure. "This would be the only area that we have the opt-out and the school pays those costs."

Boehm argued that there are alternatives available.

"As I have seen in our school district, the student is maybe sent to the library or somewhere to do something else," Boehm said. "(Responsibility for alternative education) would be on the schools;they may have students do something else on the health (curriculum) instead of the sex education."

A state Department of Education official said the department supports an opt-out, but said allowing it for the entire health education curriculum may create problems.

"Sexuality education is such a controversial thing that allowing parents the opportunity to opt out for other than religious reasons makes sense to us," said Mary Buebis of the DOE Office of Student Health. "The part that is troubling is that a parent can opt out of any unit of health. Teachers would have a difficult time writing a cohesive curriculum if students can opt out at any time."

Sex education programs acquired a permanent place in many school systems during the HIV and AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.

Current state education regulations require instruction in "family life and comprehensive sexuality education, including instruction relative to abstinence and sexually transmitted infections."

Under the legislation now before the House, a parent could opt out of having a child attend discussions that focus on abstinence.

For some lawmakers, the issue presents a dilemma of protecting health while respecting family values and decisions.

"There is an intersection of public health and sex education and that is sexually transmitted diseases," said Rep. Judith Sprang, D-Durham. "Schools will have to thread a needle where they are able to avoid talking about sex in terms that a parent objects to, yet still be able to give students information they need to stay safe."

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