The Colorado House gave initial approval to a bill Friday that would expand state requirements for sexual education in schools after hours of angry, tearful speeches and relentless opposition from rural and conservative lawmakers.
The bill, known as House Bill 1032, builds on existing law that bans abstinence-only sex education from schools and requires so-called comprehensive sex-ed programs to discuss alternative genders, sexualities and various methods to protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. HB 1032 would, among other things, give schools money to run comprehensive sex-education programs, with particular preference given to rural school districts.
But on Friday, many rural legislators were adamant the bill would violate local control of schools, promote abortion and undermine parents, many of whom wrote thousands of emails opposing the bill and had traveled hours to testify against it.
In a last emotional appeal to lawmakers, bill sponsor Rep. Susan Lontine, D-Denver, compared fighting against comprehensive sex education, which doesn’t favor one sexual or gender identity over another, to racial segregation.
“This is really what this is – we are trying to segregate the kids who are different,” said Lontine. The bill, she added, would ensure that didn’t happen.
Her comments ended a daylong effort by Republicans to kill HB 1032 in a sprawling debate that painted the bill as unconstitutional and claimed it violated the First Amendment, had not received adequate public testimony and had been assigned to the wrong committee. Some lawmakers yelled in frustration, while others cried as they pleaded for the rights of parents to raise children without interference.
Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, voted against the bill. But Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, sat on the House floor with a petition signed by hundreds of Durango High School students who support comprehensive sex education in school.
The bill was carried on its second reading by a mostly silent Democratic majority. The bill must go before the full House again before heading to the Senate.
Since 2013, Colorado has required schools that choose to offer sex education make it comprehensive and represent the perspectives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. Schools are banned from teaching abstinence-only education, but comprehensive sex ed does discuss abstinence as a method of protection against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
But contrary to state law, many school districts in Colorado still offer abstinence-only education or fail to offer comprehensive sex education, according to experts, lawmakers and the districts themselves.
Phil Kasper, interim superintendent of the Dolores School District, appreciates that HB 1032 would not make sex education mandatory, but he thinks there are better uses for the money that HB 1032 would offer to districts to teach sex ed.
“Rather than receiving funds via a grant for sex ed implementation, I would so much rather apply it to enhancing our underpaid teachers,” he said.
Had HB 1032 failed, Colorado statute would still require all sex education offered in public schools to be comprehensive. But HB 1032 would add lessons about consent before sex and prohibitions against sexual education programs that stigmatize or shame lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals. The bill would also ensure that schools could not work around current law and bring in nonprofits to teach abstinence-only sex education.
The bill would also allocate $1 million to fund comprehensive sex education programs – enough for 18 grants of $50,000 to schools that want to fund the program. Participating in sex education or offering the program remains optional under HB 1032.
Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, a sponsor of the bill, remains the lone Republican in the Capitol to openly support it, in keeping with a tendency to break with his party when it comes to abortions, contraceptives and sexual education.
Coram, backed by Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, thinks abstinence-only programs don’t prevent teen pregnancies or the spread of STDs. But his colleagues in the House warned Friday that comprehensive sex education sidelines Coloradans who oppose abortion and violates the wishes of parents who believe in abstinence-only sex education.