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In featuring abstinence-only education, Mich. schools may have broken the law

MahurinPointing_Thumb1_2526.jpg
MahurinPointing_Thumb1_2526.jpg

At least two Michigan school districts may have violated laws related to sex education in the state in order to play host to a Colorado-based abstinence-only sex education program. A third district did not completely follow state laws in booking the group.

Both Homer Community Schools, located south of Battle Creek in Calhoun County, and Olivet Community Schools located in southern Eaton county, played host to the Colorado-based abstinence-only education program called “Wise Choices” earlier this year. But documents obtained under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act show that the program was not properly approved as required under Michigan law, nor were parents informed of the program and given the change to have their children opt out of the assemblies, also required under Michigan law.

Marshall Public Schools also hosted the program, and documents obtained from that district show that while the program was approved by the sex education advisory committee, there is no evidence the program approval was forwarded to the Board of Education. In addition, while the school sent out a newsletter indicating the program was about sexual health, the district did not inform parents of their right to opt their children out of the program.

Under law, sex education programs are supposed to be approved by a sex education advisory committee appointed by the district. That committee reviews curriculum and assemblies and refers it to the district board of education. The board is then required to hold two public hearings before approving the new curriculum information.

Michigan Messenger’s FOIA request asked for “minutes of the Olivet Community Schools Sex Education Advisory Committee in which the approval of the Wise Choices program was authorized under state law.”

Rob Ridgeway, superintendent of Homer Community Schools, responded that this documentation, “Does not exist. There are no dates or minutes of the Homer Community Schools Sex Education Advisory Committee in which approval of the Wise Choices Program was authorized.”

Brooke Judd, interim assistant superintendent for Olivet Community Schools, also denied that district had any such documents.

Both Olivet and Homer school officials also reported that parents were not informed of their right to opt out of the program.

Michigan Department of Education spokesperson Jan Ellis says the department, while empowered to oversee public school compliance with Michigan education laws, does not have the ability to take action without a complaint from a parent in the district.

“Clearly it’s important that districts comply with the laws related to HIV and sex education. However, staff turnover and the complexity of the laws and requirements present real challenges at the local level,” Ellis said. “But sometimes with changes in personnel, etc. school districts ‘don’t know what they don’t know.’ For example, districts may not realize that school assemblies can fall under the sex education laws if the topic matter relates to sex education.”

Ellis said there is no mechanism in place to identify how common violations of state law related to sex education are in districts across the state. Under Michigan law, only parents of students in a district may file a complaint about the content or delivery of sex education in a given school district. If the district does not respond in a given time frame, the parent can refer the complaint to the Department of Education. If the district is found by the department to have violated one or more Michigan laws, they are subject to losing up to one percent of their total school aid fund allowance.

“Districts are generally very motivated to comply with the laws, and we have yet to see a complaint that is not addressed,” Ellis says. “There is no legal authority to monitor or routinely collect or assess this information.”

That lack of ability to monitor or take action without a parental complaint has State Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor) concerned. Warren is a champion of assuring that Michigan schools provide medically accurate, scientifically accurate and age appropriate information about sex, sexually transmitted infections and reproductive health in general.

“It seems ridiculous to me that the Department of Education has no enforcement mechanism without a complaint from a parent,” said Warren. “This should be troubling to all of us.”

Speaker of the House Jase Bolger (R-Marshall), whose district includes both Marshall Public Schools and Homer Community Schools, is not quite as willing to act as Warren is.

“The Speaker will be keeping an eye on this, not only as a legislator but also as a concerned Marshall school parent. At this time, it sounds like the best recourse for this entire situation rests at the local school and school board level,” says Ari Adler, Bolger’s spokesperson. “If the review by the local officials results in a desire for changes to existing law, that’s something the House can consider. The first step, however, is usually to make sure existing laws are being followed before adding new ones.”

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