Sep 25, 2023 - Education

Majority of CMS students on track to miss sex ed under new opt-in law

Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Under a new state law, North Carolina public schools must receive an opt-in from parents to teach students sex education.

  • Only 12,522 of 56,950 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students opted into sex education by the district’s requested Sept. 11 deadline.
  • There’s still time for parents to opt in through the online student information form.

Why it matters: In the past, parents had to opt-out if they didn’t want sex ed for their children. Now, advocates worry the policy change will result in fewer students, especially those from marginalized communities, receiving crucial reproductive health education.

  • “How many students are not going to get the services and the lessons that their parents want them to get because we’ve created a new barrier?” CMS school board chair Elyse Dashew says. “That could be an unintended consequence to this.”

The big picture: The lack of education is also suspected to lead to more teen pregnancies at a time when abortion laws in North Carolina are more restrictive.

“If we remove sex education, how can we say they should know better?” says Jocie Sweeney, a licensed psychologist who works with teens in Charlotte.

What’s happening: The opt-in policy is a provision in the controversial Parents’ Bill of Rights. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the legislation, but it passed through the Republican supermajority this summer.

  • The opt-in change for sex education has been a lesser-discussed topic than other issues in the bill related to book challenges and teachings of “gender identity, sexual activity or sexuality.”

Yes, but: School districts are receiving more time to comply with the Parents’ Bill of Rights.

  • As part of the state budget, lawmakers agreed to delay the implementation from Sept. 15 until Jan. 1.
  • CMS has sex education courses later in the school year as part of health class.

“History indicates that some families may not participate in the information gathering as we are teaching a new behavior which is to opt-in,” CMS wrote in an email to Axios. “[T]he mindset may still be that one must opt-out and that the student will automatically receive the lesson.”

  • Chair Dashew says schools are continuing to push out the messaging to parents. She anticipates more responses as it comes directly from the schools.

“The onus is on us to find ways to make it as easy as possible for parents to opt in, but I am concerned that this is going to be a real challenge,” she says.

The other side: The Parents’ Bill of Rights attempts to strengthen parent involvement in their children’s education. For instance, it requires a process for parents to review materials, including from reproductive health and safety education programs.

By the numbers: Of all the CMS students in 5th through 9th grade, 43,378 did not have complete forms as of Sept. 11. 408 students’ guardians did not answer the opt-in question, and 642 opted out.

  • CMS tells Axios its central office has not documented how many students opted out of sex ed in years past but says it was very few.

Between the lines: The reproductive health and safety curriculum teaches about sexually transmitted diseases, contraception and consent. Typically lessons are given at the end of the quarter or semester.

  • “This is deliberately planned so teachers and students have built relationships and developed a safe and supportive learning environment where students feel comfortable,” says Jenn Vedder, CMS health and physical education specialist.
  • Students also learn what constitutes sexual assault and abuse and how to report it. Law enforcement will sometimes come in to teach about sex trafficking prevention and awareness.

“So many children are reporting sexual assault. We need to empower them with information,” school board member Jennifer De La Jara said at a school board meeting in August.

There are elements to North Carolina’s sex education requirements that some consider problematic. State statute requires the curriculum to teach heterosexuality as the “best lifelong means of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases.”

  • Still, advocates of sex education say the good outweighs any bad.

Zoom out: CMS was one of the first in the state to revise its policies to comply with the Parents’ Bill of Rights.

  • Most districts, however, are waiting for more guidance from the state. Questions linger about enforcement, especially regarding a policy that essentially requires teachers to out transgender students to their parents.

The bottom line: “I think the attendance is going to go down dramatically, but not because parents don’t want their kids there. I think most parents would want it,” Sweeney said. “I think the people thinking, ‘Oh, it’ll be fine, parents will just opt in’ — well, those are parents of privilege, and also parents who probably have time to talk about sex education.”

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