Indiana school boards to have final say over ‘human sexuality’ lessons under GOP-backed bill

The proposal advanced to the full Senate Chamber despite pushback from critics over “ambiguous” language.

By: - February 1, 2024 7:00 am

Indiana lawmakers want school board members to be directly responsible for human sexuality curriculum. (Getty Images)

Hoosier school boards would have authority over “human sexuality” instruction under legislation moving through the Indiana Statehouse. But opponents say local leaders already have a say in sex education curricula, and call the bill “hostile” towards LGBTQ students.

The GOP-backed measure advanced 8-5 from the Senate education committee on Wednesday and now heads to the full chamber.

Sen. Gary Byrne, R-Byrneville, who authored Senate Bill 128, called it “a simple bill” that increases transparency for parents and gives school boards “direction” over learning materials they should be up on “but don’t always know about.”

Sen. Gary Byrne. R-Byrneville (Photo from Indiana House Republicans)

“This is a subject where teachers and parents have reached out to me with concerns. We all know conversations about sex ed are more sensitive than other subjects because families have different values and different ideals about what is appropriate to talk about, and when it’s appropriate for their child to hear about it,” Byrne said. “Publishing this information will just help parents better decide whether they want to opt out.”

But critics of the bill argued the bill’s language is “ambiguous” and could prevent certain — or any — aspects of human sexuality from being taught to Hoosier students.

“Every person — not just straight, cisgender folks — need to see reflections of representations of themselves. To create a law which we know from other states can be easily misused and abused is dangerous,” said Emma Vosicky, executive director of Indianapolis-based nonprofit GenderNexus. “As Hoosiers, we should not create roadblocks to understanding and welcoming other people — barriers leaving students and staff feeling stigmatized for their differences.”

Increasing ‘transparency’

Byrne’s bill provides that, if a school provides students instruction on human sexuality, the school board or other governing authority must first approve any related curricular materials in a public meeting.

Specifically, the bill requires that — in districts where human sexuality is taught to kids in grades 4 through 12 — a school board must approve and publicly publish on its website an annual plan with:

  • Each grade level, course or class in which students will receive instruction on human sexuality. 
  • The weeks during which instruction on human sexuality will be taught, if the instruction is provided by an instructor teaching multiple subjects to a single class.
  • Information about whether human sexuality will be taught to: (A) male and female students in a unified setting; or (B) male and female students in separate settings.
  • Indication if human sexuality instruction will be taught by a male or female instructor.
  • A short description of the topics that will be discussed during instruction on human sexuality.
  • All learning materials that will be used for instruction on human sexuality.

The introduction of sex education usually starts in the fourth grade, according to state guidelines. But Indiana does not require the course in schools. Instead, it only mandates that schools teach lessons on HIV and AIDS. Schools that do teach sex education are expected to focus on abstinence.

Even so, Indiana parents already have the right to remove their child from sex education classes.

Currently, school boards also have the authority to review and approve curricular materials. State law further requires school corporations to make instructional materials available to parents so that they can consent to instruction on human sexuality. 

But because Indiana doesn’t have specific state standards for sex education, Byrne suggested that leaves Hoosier teachers void of “directions.” 

“I didn’t want to force anything at the state level, but as a former school board member, I think putting the local school boards in the driver’s seat — that makes good sense. They are elected by the voters, after all,” he said.

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Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association (ISBA), said his group supports the legislation, given it’s “an alignment” with existing procedure for most boards.

“This is not new territory for boards to have the authority to do this,” Spradlin said. “We’re striving for transparency, local control. Certainly, that’s protected in this bill, And, you know, supporting parental engagement, informing the parents what’s taught and allowing them to make the decision to opt their child into the instruction to grant, and provide consent for instruction.”

The bill is additionally supported by the American Family Association of Indiana and the Indiana Family Institute.

Representatives from the socially conservative advocacy groups said the legislation would ensure more “transparency” around sex education and help school boards “avoid controversy.”

Contention over ‘human sexuality’

Human sexuality isn’t defined in state law. But Byrne noted the term has been used in the Indiana Code “for many, many years.” 

“I didn’t feel like it was necessary for it to be defined in this bill,” he said, adding that the bill, as written, lets local school boards “define that locally.”

Chris Daley, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana, maintained that local school boards “already have the authority to do exactly what’s in the bill.”

Emma Vosicky, executive director of Indianapolis-based nonprofit GenderNexus (Photo courtesy GenderNexus)

He additionally pointed to a 2023 Indiana Department of Education survey, in which 8% of respondents said they did not know what was being taught in their child’s school. Only 7% said they had concerns over curricula. 

“This is not a local control bill,” Daley said. “This is a bill that is requiring every school district in the state to now hold hearings on very volatile issues in which a small number of folks can come and take over those meetings. It also allows a small number of members to inject their own political beliefs into sex education at the local level.”

Vosicky said the bill is “almost certainly a violation” of Titles IV and VI. She emphasized, too, that the proposal wrongly directs school boards “to evaluate layers of curriculum outside of their scope and expertise.”

“This can be readily abused to harm, shame and erase the existence of LGBTQ children, families and school staff,” Vosicky said, adding that — without a definition for ‘human sexuality — the bill “chills speech” and “makes folks with slightly different experiences feel unseen an unwelcome.”

“Is every book about a boy kissing a girl or holding her hand about human sexuality, or does this apply only to LGBTQ kids? … Is it instruction if a teacher posts a photo of their same-gender spouse, or uses the students affirming pronouns?” she continued. “A hostile school environment is statistically shown to undermine academic success, especially in a world where school hate crimes are skyrocketing.”

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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.

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