Wednesday, October 27, 2010

“Sensitive Issues:” Myths vs. Facts about the new Sex Ed Law

Sex Ed in Wisconsin: New State Standards
The Healthy Youth Act, a new law passed earlier this year that the ACLU of Wisconsin supported, raises the state standards for how public schools offer human growth and development courses. Now if schools offer sex ed, it should be non-discriminatory, fact-based, age-appropriate, and comprehensive in covering the benefits and function of FDA-approved methods of birth control. The comprehensive approach to sex ed is the most effective way to teach young people the facts about human sexuality so that they can make healthy choices in their adolescence and into their adult lives.

Since the new law was passed, and in the wake of the Cedarburg School District decision to segregate "sensitive issues" by requiring parents to opt their children into a comprehensive program, opponents of the Healthy Youth Act have promoted myths about the rights of parents and schools. Cedarburg's decision has been criticized by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, by a physician and Cedarburg curriculum advisory committee and the District of Public Instruction.

And yet, social conservatives like op-ed writer Patrick McIlheran (in his Journal Sentinel column), GermantownNOW blogger Al Campbell and Charlie Sykes (on his October 19th show - part 3) are calling the new law an "oppressive" effort for the state to take power away from parents and school boards.

The Myth of Decreased Parental Control
First, critics suggest that parents don’t have control over their kids’ education regarding sex ed. The Healthy Youth Act continues to protect the right of parents to exempt their children from material they find objectionable. When a school district has a clear plan for human growth and development lessons, parents have the power to work with the school to make alternative arrangements. Additionally, the new law gives parents greater power in reviewing the curriculum at any time. Schools have the responsibility to ensure that exempted students have an equal, alternative assignment and do not face any grade penalty or discrimination for opting out. It is also common for parents to serve on the local school board’s curriculum advisory committees, as they do in the public meetings in Cedarburg. Parents’ rights and voices continue to be protected in the new law. But the law recognizes that young people and our state’s public health benefit when complete information about sexual health is offered to all students in our schools.

The Myth of Decreased Local Control
Critics also say that the law decreases local control over a school’s curriculum. This is hardly the case. The law raised state standards to ensure that young people receive information about reproduction and relationships that is comprehensive, fact-based and non-discriminatory. However the decision on how curriculum is designed and taught continues to rest in the hands of the instruction advisory committees and the school board members themselves. The Healthy Youth Act doesn’t require schools to teach human growth and development, but then schools would have to inform parents about the lack of education their children would receive. While evidence-based curricula packages are available to schools, the state Department of Public Instruction’s website has a toolkit that has resources for both schools and parents to teach human growth and development that works for their community. The state law outlines definitions but does not mandate a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

The Myth of Explicit Classroom Instruction
Reading opinion from social conservatives, one might think that the Healthy Youth Act is mandating that our local schools peddle pornography to children. But when the voices of criticism of comprehensive sexuality education come from radical, anti-contraception organizations like Pro-Life Wisconsin, misinformation needs to be countered with basic facts about the language of the new law.

The state law says that instruction must be “medically accurate” which means that it is based in science, approved by major medical journals and that instruction is reviewed by experts. Instruction must be “age-appropriate” or “suitable to a particular age group of pupils based on cognitive and emotional capacity.” School board members across the state might struggle with what they think age-appropriate means to them, but with puberty and adolescence come questions and young people deserve to get the facts about human sexuality.

State law does not require schools to “teach homosexuality.” The law does, however, require that instruction is free of bias against pupils of any race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnic or cultural background or against sexually active pupils or children with disabilities. In the wake of recent suicides of gay teens and the attention paid to preventing bullying and discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation or non-traditional gender identity, classroom time devoted to teaching respect would do all Wisconsin schools some good. Wisconsin schools that offer comprehensive sexuality education should include time for discussion on the issues faced by LGBT youth and how schools can be safe places for everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

State law does not require schools to “teach masturbation.” No place in the law mentions the word “masturbation,” nor does it define masturbation as a normal part of a healthy human sexuality. The law does say that instruction should include information about “reproductive and sexual anatomy and physiology, including biological, psychosocial and emotional changes that accompany maturation.” When proponents of abstinence-only instruction critique a comprehensive approach, do they believe that students would have fewer questions about masturbation if they receive no answers to their questions about relationships, reproduction or contraception?

What Parents, Teachers and Youth Rights Advocates Can Do
Download our resource pages (PDF) with "Questions for Parents to Ask About Sex Education" and "Ten Ways to Work for Comprehensive Sexuality Education." Teachers and curriculum advisory committee members can visit the Department of Public Instruction's webpage on human growth curriculum for more information on how to design lesson plans that work and nondiscriminatory. The ACLU of Wisconsin also has resources to share with teachers for effective lesson plans that can meet the improved state standards for schools across the state. Email the ACLU of Wisconsin for more information.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Why Cedarburg Schools Are Out of Step with the New Sex Ed Law

The Healthy Youth Act, a new law passed earlier this year that the ACLU of Wisconsin supported, raises the state standards for how public schools offer human growth and development courses. Because of the law, what we know as sex ed should be non-discriminatory, fact-based, age-appropriate, and comprehensive in covering FDA-approved methods of birth control, their benefits and how they work. The comprehensive approach to sex ed is the most effective way to teach young people the facts about human sexuality so that they can make healthy choices in their adolescence and into their adult lives.

But this month, the Cedarburg School District sent a letter to parents that described the school’s new policy regarding human growth and development instruction. Parents will be required to fill out an opt-in form in order for their children to receive a comprehensive lesson plan about reproduction and sexual health.

This year’s plan for sex ed at Cedarburg is unlike that of other schools across the state. By separating classes for topics the school board has deemed “sensitive” – topics that would be necessary to make the curriculum comprehensive and medically accurate – the school board is evading the law by offering non-comprehensive instruction to students who have no evidence of communication from parents.

Our state legislators wrote the law with the intention that all students would be offered complete information about sexual health and relationships as a basic part of their health classes. In spite of the long-studied recommendations from the school’s curriculum advisory committee, the board’s decision is unfortunate in that it is the very lack of communication from parents that will result in less education for students who deserve to get the facts about how their bodies work and how they can protect their own reproductive health.

So to the parents of Cedarburg: please read the letter from your school about sex ed carefully. Send a note to the school office saying what you think before November 1. But most importantly, make sure your school board members know that the silence of parents should not result in less information for the students of Cedarburg. Schools should be in the business of providing young people with more education, not less.

Read the latest about how the Department of Public Instruction warned the Cedarburg school district that their plan could be challenged by civil litigation and a letter to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from a physician and member of the curriculum advisory committee about why the plan is non-comprehensive and bad for the students of their school district.

Download our resource pages (PDF) with "Questions for Parents to Ask About Sex Education" and "Ten Ways to Work for Comprehensive Sexuality Education."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Federal Report Underscores Need for Fair Housing Plans, ACLU of Wisconsin Agrees

On October 15th, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released its report on Housing and Community Grants. The GAO found – and put as the main conclusion on the title page of the report – that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) “Needs to Enhance Its Requirements and Oversight of Jurisdictions’ Fair Housing Plans.” Fair housing advocates in Wisconsin agree.

“For years, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council and other groups have worked to ensure there is fair and open housing throughout our region,” stated Bill Tisdale, MMFHC’s CEO. “This report shows that we also need HUD to step up and make sure that county and local governments are doing their part.”

“Federal law is very clear that if a local government gets money from HUD for things like the Community Development Block Grant or HOME program, it has to analyze the impediments to fair housing in that community,” noted Karyn Rotker, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Wisconsin, which also works on fair housing issues. “And beyond that, it has to take actions to try to reduce those barriers. This isn’t just responding to complaints of discrimination – it’s taking active steps to create a more inclusive community.”

Mr. Tisdale added that “impediments to fair housing” are far broader than just overt expressions of discrimination. “For example, if people in protected groups – like people of color and persons with disabilities – are more likely to need affordable housing and a community’s laws or policies prevent that housing from being built, this is clearly a fair housing impediment. In fact, the GAO report shows it is one of the most common impediments to fair housing around the country – and that is certainly true in Wisconsin.”

“We hope this report will be just a first step for HUD to make sure that local governments are complying with the law,” added Attorney Rotker. “And we also hope that the governments themselves will start taking these requirements seriously.”

The response by the ACLU of Wisconsin and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council are available on the ACLU of Wisconsin's website.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Madison ACLU Celebrates Banned Books Week

Thanks to everyone who came out to the ACLU's Banned Books Week happy hour. A part of the Wisconsin Book Festival's line up, the happy hour was a time for book lovers and free speech supporters to gather and celebrate the right to read.

Co-sponsored by the Wisconsin Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Roundtable, the event featured IFRT board member Val Edwards who helped us toast the librarians and book defenders who keep even controversial books available to the public.

Val introduced ACLU of Wisconsin Community Advocate, Stacy Harbaugh, who asked everyone to raise a glass and shout out their favorite book on the challenged book list. Harbaugh shared the stories behind some high-profile book challenges in Wisconsin over the past year (such as in Fond du Lac and West Bend) and thanked ACLU members for their passionate and dedicated support.

As a thank-you to those who attended the event, we were able to give away some ACLU t-shirts, stickers and hats for door prizes. Other generous contributions included fair trade coffee from Just Coffee, a gift certificate for A Room Of One's Own Bookstore. We also thank Jesse Russell from Dane 101 for donating two tickets to the Freakin' Halloweekend bash which were the first of the door prizes to go.

Stay tuned to the Cap City Liberty blog for the announcement of our next happy hour. Slated for February, we are planning on an event with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin to invite people to be a part of the reproductive freedom agenda for 2011.

Didn't get a chance to donate to the ACLU of Wisconsin at the happy hour? Your support is always welcome - you can give back on our website or through Community Shares of Wisconsin and their workplace giving campaigns.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Milwaukee ACLU Celebrates Banned Books Week

The ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation, Woodland Pattern Book Center, the Wisconsin Center for the Book and Art Night Books co-hosted, co-presented the 2nd annual Banned Book reading in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on the evening of October 1st at Woodland Pattern.

About 45 attendees enjoyed wine, food and challenged book readings by guests Vince Bushell, Daisy Cubias, Tom Montag, La Shawndra Vernon and Scott Walter.

Vince Bushell, botanist & publisher of the Riverwest Currents, read from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House Five.

Daisy Cubias, celebrated poet and native of El Salvador, chose to read selected poems from a Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton. Poet, printer and Wisconsin Center for the Book board member, Tom Montag, read from Ulysses by James Joyce. La Shawndra, activist and well known performer, read from The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee professor and lecturer, Scott Walter, appropriately read 1984 by George Orwell.

Asking the audience, “where would we be as a people and a society without many of these wonderful books we grew up with?” Angie Trudell Vasquez invited people to imagine how our lives would be different without such great literature. Co-host and poet, Vasquez read from Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.

Another co-hosts, ACLU of Wisconsin Youth & Program Director, Emilio De Torre, dressed this year as Lord Byron and read from his much enjoyed original poem combining Banned Book titles and pleas for donations to our represented worthy organizations.

After the event people thanked the ACLU of Wisconsin for supporting their freedom to read said what a good time they had hearing celebrated works, banter and conversation. Many people commented on their literary favorites being on the banned book list. An English teacher in the audience said much of what she assigned showed up on the classics lists.

ACLU Urges WI Court to Allow Registered Domestic Partners to Speak in Support of DP Law

Couples Seek To Help Defend Lawsuit Challenging Wisconsin’s Domestic Partner Law

On Friday, October 1, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion before a Dane County Circuit Court on behalf of five couples asking that they be allowed to participate in a lawsuit seeking to overturn Wisconsin’s law granting limited domestic partnership protections to same-sex couples, so that they may defend the law. The law is being challenged by an anti-gay organization that contends that the law grants same-sex couples the same status as marriage, which is barred by the Wisconsin Constitution.

“Same-sex couples who have registered as domestic partners have the most at stake in this lawsuit and deserve to be heard,” said John Knight, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project. “Only those directly affected by the law know what it’s like to worry about not being able to visit a partner in the hospital or to be left with nothing when a partner dies without a will.”

Wisconsin’s law allows for same-sex couples to register as domestic partners, granting them hospital visitation rights, the right to make certain decisions about medical care and rights to family and medical leave. Same-sex couples are still denied crucial protections provided only to married couples, such as the right to decide what happens to their partner’s body at death, and are denied access to all federal benefits, such as Social Security and veterans’ benefits.

Board members of Wisconsin Family Action had asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to strike down the domestic partner law as inconsistent with the amendment to the state constitution that bans same-sex couples from marriage. The case, Appling v. Doyle, was dismissed by the state Supreme Court and re-filed in the circuit court, where both sides will be able to have a trial and present evidence to support their cases.

“While the domestic partnership law in no way provides the same benefits and legal protections as marriage, it is a lifeline for committed couples who seek the security and dignity of being able to provide for their families,” said Larry Dupuis of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “These couples have the right to defend these limited, but extremely important, protections against this unwarranted and mean-spirited attack.”

Also today, Lambda Legal also filed court papers today to intervene in the case on behalf of Fair Wisconsin and five member couples, saying that domestic partnerships and marriages are not “substantially similar.”

Attorneys on the case include Knight of the ACLU, Dupuis of the ACLU of Wisconsin and David J.B. Froiland, Linda E.B. Hansen, Daniel A. Manna and David B. Goroff of Foley & Lardner LLP.

Additional information about the case, including bios of the couples and legal documents, is available online.