Debate brews in Florida about parental consent over sex education

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Culture-war politics over sex education could again erupt in Florida’s statehouse, as a Senate Committee advanced a measure Tuesday that would require public school boards to hold hearings on what should be included in sex education curricula.

The move sets up a potential clash with a House bill that seeks to require school districts to first get parental permission before a student can be taught about human reproduction and its consequences.

The debate in Florida is part of a wider national discussion, much of it pushed by social conservatives, about whether public schools are the proper venues for teaching children about sex — including unintended pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as the virus that causes AIDS.

The measure arrived before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee as a bill that would protect children against pornography and other harmful material but morphed into a proposal about sex education.

Comprehensive sex education is not mandated across Florida, but state law does not bar school districts from offering such instruction in their classrooms. However, current state law requires school districts to provide comprehensive health education, including what it calls “an awareness of the benefits of sexual abstinence as the expected standard and the consequences of teenage pregnancy.” It also includes a provision on dating violence and abuse, as well as “the characteristics of healthy relationships.”

Some lawmakers are seeking to rewrite the law so sex education, if offered by a school district, would not be an automatic part of a child's school curricula. Under the proposal in the Florida House — and the initial version introduced in the Senate — schools would have to get written consent from parents if they want their children to take part in sex education classes.

“We are in a time when our basic values are up for debate,” said state Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican. “They go to school and hear one thing, and they go home and hear another thing — and it puts kids in a tough spot.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a fellow Republican, offered a compromise supported by the majority of the panel that would instead require school boards to publicly debate what should be included in the sex education curricula and post that information online for parental review so they can decide whether to exclude their children from such classes.

Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat, urged her colleagues on the committee to defend its version from attempts to replace it with the House version.

"I think this education to our kids is essential,” she said.

Sex education has long been an area of fierce debate. In Idaho, a proposal would require that a student cannot be exposed to discussions about gender identity, sexual orientation, sexual intimacy and eroticism without the consent from parents.