Students in the Sitka School District will continue to receive education on family life and sexual health, but parents will be allowed to excuse them from everything, including classes on sexual assault awareness and dating violence prevention.

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Erin Merryn (r.) testifying before the Alaska House on The Alaska Safe Children’s Act, introduced by Rep. Geran Tarr (l.) in 2014. The bill was nicknamed “Erin’s Law,” and requires sexual abuse awareness training in schools. Dating violence awareness is being folded into the bill by the current legislature, and those sections are being renamed “Bree’s Law.” (KTOO photo/Skip Gray)

The Sitka School Board Monday night (5-1-17) passed a policy (BP 5141.41) to bring the district into compliance with what is known as Bree’s Law, named for 20-year old Bree Moore, who was shot and killed by her boyfriend in Anchorage in 2014.

Bree’s Law requires school districts to provide staff and students with compulsory age-appropriate training in sexual abuse and dating violence awareness and prevention.

Board member Tom Conley — a retired pediatrician — fully supported protecting students, and raising awareness about sexual abuse, but he was bothered by a philosophical contradiction.

“Reproduction is a very complex and elegant form of knowledge. And it even permits you to be somewhat participatory in the creation of individuals. So it has a divine element. And what we’re saying is that it’s fine that you don’t take that course, but it’s mandatory that you take the pathology. It’s just insane.”

But the contradiction is more than philosophical — it’s concrete, and built right into the policies before the board on Monday. As required by statute, the Sitka District’s policy on sexual abuse awareness has an opt-out provision, and that was a problem for board member Jenn McNichol.

“So a parent or a family can opt out of the supposedly mandatory child abuse, sexual abuse, sexual assault, and dating violence awareness and prevention. And I would have concerns about families which perhaps have some not good things going on, that they can opt out, so that their child remains uninformed.”

The contradiction stems from another law — HB 156 — which was passed last year by the legislature, and introduced a number of measures intended to give parents more control over sexual health curriculum, and who can teach it. For instance, the law requires that parents must be notified two weeks ahead of time when schools plan to give instruction on sexual health and family life, and they have the right to inspect the curriculum and the credentials of the instructor — who either must be a certified teacher, or working under the direct supervision of one.

The policy (BP 6142.1) crafted by the Sitka School Board to comply with this statute follows the wording of the law closely, including the opt-out provision: “At the parent/guardian’s request, any student may be excused from any part of family life/sex education instruction, except for awareness and prevention training provided to students concerning sexual assault, sexual abuse, and dating violence and abuse.”

Oops. The policy drafted to comply with Bree’s Law says parents can excuse their kids from sex abuse awareness education; the policy on sexual health says they can’t.

Superintendent Mary Wegner told the board that other districts have encountered this same problem.

“When we tried to bring this point up with the legislators, we didn’t get anywhere.”

Rather than have contradictory policies on the books, the Sitka board’s solution was to give parents an opt-out across the entire spectrum of sex-related instruction in the district.

Jenn McNichol unhappily recommended changing the policy on sexual abuse awareness.

“And strike out the part ‘except for awareness and prevention training provided to students concerning sexual abuse, sexual assault, and dating violence and abuse’ — although philosophically, I heartily disagree with that.”

The policy was referred back to committee to remove the language contradictory to that in Bree’s Law.