At a meeting Tuesday, the Haines School Board voted unanimously to approve the high school sex education instructor, as well as the textbook used to teach the course. Their decisions were made under a new law that gives parents more oversight on the subject.
House Bill 156 became law in the state this summer, and it went into effect last month. At its November meeting, the school board focused on the provisions of the law related to sex ed.
To comply with the regulations, they have to approve the sex ed instructor. That’s Mark Fontenot, who teaches science at the school. He’s also been teaching high school health, including sex ed, for about five years. For the school board, allowing him to continue teaching it seemed like a no-brainer. He was approved in a unanimous vote.
But, they also need to put their stamp of approval on the curriculum and materials he uses to teach that section of the course. The curriculum was approved in 2013, but they needed to approve an updated version of the textbook previously given the green light. That was not as straightforward.
“The text that we were asked to review is not comprehensive in terms of all of the topics that I hope we are teaching in our classes and so I think we also need to approve those materials,” said school board member Sara Chapell.
“What I didn’t see in the textbook was anything about birth control and anything about gender identity and sexuality,” said Chapell. “Those seem like two really important topics.”
Fontenot said he still teaches those subjects, even though they are not in the book.
“Those are in the curriculum despite not being in the textbook,” said Fontenot.
“They are in the curriculum but they are not in the materials that we were asked to approve,” said Chapell.
“That’s because the materials consist of me teaching about those things,” said Fontenot.
The book is an overarching health textbook, with specific chapters used for the sex ed portion of the class. It leans heavily on abstinence and doesn’t talk about other methods of birth control. Condoms are mentioned only as a way to reduce the risk of contracting HIV.
Chapell’s concern was that, since the school board now has to approve all the materials Fontenot uses, he may not legally be able to teach beyond the textbook. And, if another teacher took over the course, would they be limited to the one approved book?
“Are you precluded from pulling up a chart about birth control unless we approve that material? Because I think so. I think the reason we are having to approve those chapters in that book is because that’s the approved material and that concerns me. I don’t want our teachers to be hindered in their ability to talk especially about birth control but also about gender identity,” said Chapell.
Fontenot said he doesn’t have a lot of other materials to provide. He said he teaches from his knowledge as a scientist and when he doesn’t know something he looks it up.
“When I’ve taught that I’ve taught it from my own knowledge and I really haven’t used materials other than to show students what kind of condom they should use if they should use that method,” said Fontenot. “So materials-wise there isn’t much to list. I have when talking about sexually transmitted infections Googled up images of parts of people affected by these diseases.”
Board President Anne Marie Palmieri said while they consider the students, they also have to think about the parents.
“If a parent came in and looked at the curriculum or maybe they didn’t,” said Palmieri. “If they just picked up the textbook then they wouldn’t realize that contraception was being taught at all.”
A big part of the new regulations is giving parents more oversight. The curriculum and materials approved by the school board have to be made available for parental review, and a letter has to be sent out to them at least two weeks prior to instruction. At that point, the school is legally required to let parents choose to opt their children out of sex ed. Fontenot said that has always been an option even though it wasn’t mandated until now. He said in his time, no one has chosen to opt out.
Under the condition that they would see more materials, the board unanimously approved the textbook as a material for the class, but not the only one.
Fontenot says he’s in the process of adding to his list of resources, and he’s not worried about the new regulations standing in the way of his ability to teach.