TWIN FALLS — Idaho’s 48-year-old sex education law emphasizes helping youth cultivate good values before choosing a mate, controlling sex drive and understanding sex in relation to the “miracle of life.”
State legislators want to update the 1970 law with more contemporary language. A bill introduced Jan. 25 by House Education Committee chairwoman Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, would repeal several outdated sections of Idaho Code and replace them with a new one.
Beyond language changes, a new law wouldn’t lead to any significant differences in what public schoolers learn in Magic Valley classrooms — or in local school boards deciding whether sex education will be taught.
“The biggest change I noticed was just taking out all the language related to home, family and church,” said L.T. Erickson, director of secondary programs for the Twin Falls School District. “As far as how it would change our instruction, it wouldn’t change the way we teach it, necessarily.”
Kyle Hodges, school nurse for the Cassia County School District, said the current law is “kind of comical to see” and she plans to put a copy up on her wall. She hadn’t heard about the legislation seeking to update the law.
It’s always surprising statutes and policies for a variety of institutions aren’t updated regularly, she said. “I think everyone would be surprised and astounded with what’s still on the books.”
Idaho’s sex education law falls into that category, Hodges said. She was particularly surprised to see gender references to “he,” and a sentence about the knowledge and power of sex drive and controlling it using self-discipline.
The sex education law is different than the state’s content standards for health education, which public high schoolers must meet them in order to graduate. Parents can opt their children out of sex education lessons.
The content standards dictate what public kindergarten through high schoolers learn. They were created in 2016 and adopted last year.
Under the bill introduced in the state legislature, a new section in state law would define sex education as “the anatomy and physiology of human reproduction” and “the development of healthy relationships.”
If it’s taught, sex education must be “medically accurate according to published authorities on which medical professionals generally rely” and adhere to the state’s content standards for health education, according to the bill.
It would mostly scrap outdated language. The existing law from 1970 says instruction should focus on helping youth “acquire a background of ideals and standards and attitudes which will be of value to him now and later when he chooses a mate and establishes his own family.”
The Legislature believes the primary responsibility for family life and sex education “rests upon the home and the church,” according to the law.
The law also states: “The program should supplement the work in the home and the church in giving youth the scientific, physiological information for understanding sex and its relation to the miracle of life, including knowledge of the power of the sex drive and the necessity of controlling that drive by self-discipline.”
Some things wouldn’t change under the legislation. Local school boards would still decide whether to include sex education in school curriculum. School districts would still involve families and community groups in developing sex education instruction. And parents could still excuse their child from sex education lessons.
Opting out of sex education happens in the Twin Falls School District, Erickson said, but “I don’t think it’s very common.” Schools notify parents in advance of when it will be taught.
Once a year, Twin Falls health teachers meet to discuss curriculum and review it, but there haven’t been any major changes in recent years.
Erickson said he has sat in on a middle school class to see how sex education is being taught. The approach, he said, is already consistent with language in the state’s new bill.
Eighth grade and 10th grade students take a semester-long health class. At elementary schools, school nurses conduct health-related lessons throughout the school year.
In Cassia County, Hodges teaches maturation to fifth and sixth-grade students, which focuses on puberty. Students also learn about anatomy and physiology, and healthy relationships, but not human reproduction or sexual relationships. Sexting is a topic that arises, though.
“It’s pretty much standardized with what the state expects at grade level,” she said.
Lessons move forward incrementally at an age-appropriate level into junior high and high school health classes, Hodges said. By the time students are in high school, they’re learning about topics such as preventing sexually-transmitted diseases.