Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Schools Should Get Better Advice in Juneau County and Statewide, Says ACLU of WI

The district attorney in Juneau County, Wisconsin has made an ill-advised attack on Wisconsin’s newly passed comprehensive sexuality education law. The Healthy Youth Act raises the state standards for human growth and development curricula. But the letter from District Attorney Southworth erroneously compares teaching the facts about reproduction and contraception to the sexual assault of children. The letter says the new law exposes teachers to possible criminal liability, equates sex ed to endorsing controversial behavior (in other words, education that is non-discriminatory against LGBT students is the same as “instruction on homosexuality”), and may expose school districts to civil litigation.

ACLU of Wisconsin Responds
“District Attorney Southworth has taken it upon himself to threaten possible prosecution of public school teachers in the county if they implement the new standards that require medically accurate and age-appropriate sex education,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Christopher Ahmuty.

“Southworth says that accurate information encourages teens to have sex, but the new law actually requires teachers to inform their students that sex with a minor is illegal,” Ahmuty said. “He apparently believes that good teaching will contribute to the delinquency of a minor. The Healthy Youth Act on the other hand recognizes that, despite the best advice of teachers and parents, some teenagers will still have sex and it is best that they have accurate information, rather than unreliable information from peers or the internet. ”

The Juneau County district attorney was quoted in newspaper articles that the new law is a “sick and shameful piece of legislation.” He also stated that the letter is simply a legal opinion to school districts. But the statement on his office’s letterhead is just that: a politically biased opinion. School leaders who seek more neutral legal advice on how to implement the new standards will learn that schools across the state of Wisconsin that already teach comprehensive sexuality education are not being charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors. The Wisconsin State Department of Public Education has issued a toolkit to help schools implement the new standards.

“School districts in Juneau County will be wiser if they listen to the guidance coming from the Department of Public Instruction on the new law and to their own teachers, principals, advisory councils and school attorneys,” said Ahmuty. “Parents may continue under the new law to withdraw their children from sex education.” Also under the law, schools are required to send a notice to parents if they decide not to teach human growth and development.

Media Coverage
The story hit the Associated Press wires across the state and included quotations from Pro-Life Wisconsin and Planned Parenthood. Articles were also featured in Wisconsin State Journal, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the CNN news blog, and Channel 3000 in Madison ran an interview with the DA this morning.

The blogosphere is likely to run with the story on both the pro and the con side: One Wisconsin Now featured a New Glarus blogger’s take: she writes, “According to a district attorney in northern Wisconsin, to teach a kid how to use a condom equates sexually assaulting said kid. I can’t even believe I typed that sentence, it’s so insane.” Another speechless blogger commented on the story on the's Broadsheet feminist blog.

Funding Available
And finally, as schools decry the lack of funding for public education and as Wisconsin residents watched yesterday's election results that included many failed referenda for increasing school spending beyond local revenue caps, it is worth pointing out that the language of the law begins with the encouragement for Wisconsin to "apply for federal funds allocated to evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs that have been proven through rigorous evaluation to delay sexual activity, increase contraceptive use, and reduce teen pregnancy." The Obama administration's Office of Adolescent Health just issued their call for proposals from schools to get federal funds for real sex ed.

If school leaders have questions on how to implement the new law, they should contact the Department of Public Instruction directly for answers to their questions, resources for parents, appropriate curricula suggestions and information on the studies that show how comprehensive sexuality education works to decrease teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection rates.