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Oklahoma bill would change sex ed curriculum, make it opt-in

MChe Lee

A bill passed the House General Government committee Tuesday that would require parents to opt their kids into sex education at public and charter schools, and change the type of education parents are opting their kids into.

Opt-in versus opt-out

Currently, the only mandated subject for sex ed is AIDS prevention instruction, and parents can opt their kids out of it after reviewing materials. District superintendents or a designee of a school district approve all curriculum or materials if the district chooses to go beyond AIDS prevention instruction.

That could change with House Bill 3120, authored by Rep. Danny Williams (R-Seminole). It would only allow people employed by the district and hold a standard teaching certificate to teach sex ed. Other organizations, including health departments, would not be allowed to provide sex ed.

It would also require parents, and now guardians, to provide written consent for their kids to opt into sex education provided in public and charter schools.

“The difference is the requirement for positive affirmation for these children to participate in this type of education based on the parent's willingness to let their child participate in that program,” Williams said.

Williams said an opt-in policy puts a greater responsibility on parents to ensure they understand what they’re opting into. Rep. Jared Deck (D-Norman) expressed concern about kids who aren’t growing up in supportive homes.

“I can tell you from my house, we talked about comprehensive sex education from an early age because we want to introduce it so they understand it, so that by the time they get to a school course, they tell their classmates, ‘I already know all this stuff.’ That's the goal. That is not normal,” Deck said. “When we send kids home to abusive spaces, to parents who are irresponsible, what is the consequence for their actions, their lack of actions, whenever they aren't teaching?”

Opt-in policies can create barriers for young people in accessing sex education, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S.

What would and wouldn’t be allowed in Oklahoma classrooms?

Some of the things the bill would require of sex ed include:

  • Classifying males and females based on biological sex. 
  • Teaching that biological reproductive roles are “binary, stable and unchangeable.”
  • Teaching abstinence outside of marriage as the “expected standard for all school-age students.”
  • Teaching “the benefits of monogamous heterosexual marriage.”  
  • Emphasizing abstinence is the only way to avoid “out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS and other associated health problems.” 
  • Teaching that students have the power to control personal behavior. 
  • Teaching that sexual identity and expression are binary. 

Some of the things the bill would prohibit regarding sex ed include:

  • Information about contraceptives without emphasizing potential risks. 
  • Materials that may be considered obscene or harmful to minors. 
  • Advocacy for the pursuit of sexual pleasure outside marriage. 
  • Teaching consent and negotiation skills. 
  • Instruction for exploring gender identity or sexual orientation. 
  • Presenting abortion as a safe reproductive health care choice and right. 
  • Encouragement for students to seek other help apart from parents or guardians. 

Some committee members' biggest concerns with the bill related to its take on consent. Not only would it prohibit the concept from being taught, but it would also remove the definition of consent from Oklahoma’s law regarding sex ed.

The definition of consent in Oklahoma statute is “the affirmative, unambiguous and voluntary agreement to engage in a specific sexual activity during a sexual encounter which can be revoked at any time.”

It also provides what consent is not, which is given:

  • When someone is asleep, or mentally or physically incapacitated 
  • Under duress, threat, coercion or force

Consent should also not be inferred by:

  • The absence of an individual saying “no” or “stop”
  • The existence of a prior or current relationship or sexual activity  

Currently, if a district superintendent approves sex ed curriculum beyond AIDS prevention, the district has to include information on consent and abstinence.

Minority House Leader Rep. Cyndi Munson (D-Oklahoma City) said she is worried about the removal of consent because it could prevent young people from knowing they have bodily autonomy and from protecting themselves.

“Why are we taking away the empowerment of the student to learn in an educational environment? Not every child has a parent who's teaching them this,” Munson said. “Why are we taking away that empowerment from that individual student to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when someone is violating their body?”

Williams said he thinks it is the parents’ and guardians' responsibility to decide how consent will be taught to their children.

Munson, Deck and Rep. Nick Archer (R-Elk City) expressed concerns about the bill's lack of consent education. Williams committed to working on a floor amendment with the committee to address it.

Sex education would have to be approved annually by a school district board of education in a public meeting. The State Department of Education would also have to coordinate with the State Textbook Committee to review and approve sex ed instructional materials.

Schools found not to be in compliance risk a downgrade to their accreditation statuses.

Using preferred pronouns

Additionally, schools must recognize a person’s sex as an “immutable biological trait” and that it is false to ascribe a pronoun to a person that doesn’t correspond to their biological sex.

Employees, contractors and students of public or charter schools would not be required to refer to a person by their preferred pronouns if it doesn’t correspond with their biological sex as a condition of employment, enrollment or participation in programs. It also requires school employees and contractors to not provide a student his or her preferred title or pronoun if it doesn’t correspond with that person’s biological sex.

An employee or contractor of a public school or charter school shall not provide to a student his or her preferred personal title or pronouns if the preferred personal title or pronouns do not correspond to that person's sex.

The bill passed through committee with a vote of 4-3. Munson, Deck and Archer voted against the measure. It's now headed to the House floor.

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Jillian Taylor has been StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter since August 2023.
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