Montana’s new sex ed law ensnares English and history lessons, too

The law’s broad scope means schools are notifying parents about topics that aren't obviously related to sexuality

Published December 2, 2022 9:46AM (EST)

Classroom in Highschool (Getty Images/John Coletti)
Classroom in Highschool (Getty Images/John Coletti)

This article originally appeared on Kaiser Health News.

A Montana law requiring public schools to notify parents of lessons that mention human sexuality — and allowing parents to pull their children from those lessons — has reached further and been more cumbersome than anticipated, according to two school district leaders.

School districts across the state have spent months consulting with attorneys and retooling their policies to ensure they are in compliance with the law passed in 2021. Senate Bill 99 requires parents to be notified at least 48 hours in advance about lessons related to sexual education, as well as other topics, including anatomy, intimate relationships, sexual orientation, gender identity, contraception, and reproductive rights.

Because of the law's broad scope, some schools have decided to notify parents about topics that may not be obviously related to human sexuality. In Billings, for example, school administrators sent a notice to parents of high school students at the beginning of the school year that flagged literary works such as "The Great Gatsby" and "Romeo and Juliet" because they describe intimate relationships. History and U.S. government lessons involving civil rights and certain U.S. Supreme Court cases are on the list. So, too, are biology classes that involve sexual reproduction — even nonhuman reproduction.

"Frankly, it's a pain to have to send out notices to parents of students in courses like biology where there may be a lesson taught on genetics because the lesson mentions testes, ovaries, sperm, egg, fertilization, etc.," said Micah Hill, superintendent of the Kalispell school district.

State Sen. Cary Smith (R-Billings), who sponsored the bill, did not respond to requests for comment on how the law was affecting schools. Before the state Senate voted on the bill in 2021, Smith said the law was needed because today's comprehensive sexual education encompasses much more than just biology and anatomy.

"This type of sex education deals with a lot of other issues, such as feelings, what's normal, what isn't normal, and a lot of times those teachings conflict with what we try to teach our children at home and in our churches," he said.

The Kalispell school district determined that the law applied to health classes; science lessons that involve anatomy, genetics, or reproduction; advanced psychology courses whose curriculum includes human development; certain social sciences classes; and many more.

"There really is no end to what might be considered given the broad definition that came out of the state legislature," Hill said.

Hill said that Kalispell schools and teachers send the notifications and that he did not have the number sent so far this school year. "I don't track where teachers are at in their curriculum pacing, so if it hasn't happened, it is probably a matter of time," he said.

No school district has announced changes to their curricula as a result of SB 99. Local school boards generally set school curricula through a public process in which community members are invited to offer feedback. Schools also rely heavily on the grade-level content standards set by the statewide education agency, the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

Also in response to SB 99, schools are consulting with attorneys and combing through material for any mention of the topics that fall under the law's definition of human sexuality.

Teachers must not only work with administrators and legal teams to determine which lessons might trigger notification under SB 99 but must also be careful that classroom discussions don't stray into areas that require notification if none has been given.

"On the teacher side of this, it feels like an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and overreach by the state to insert itself into locally controlled and elected school boards," Hill said.

Smith said during the 2021 debate that the measure does not tell schools what they can teach. "We're just telling them to let us know as parents and grandparents what is being taught so we can decide if we want our children to participate in those courses," he said.

Missoula County Public Schools Interim Superintendent Russ Lodge said the district has sent parental notifications since the beginning of the school year. But he could not say how many or provide examples because he is not directly involved in the individual schools' process. He said he wants his district, like Billings, to eventually include all subject matter that falls under SB 99's notification requirement in a district-wide letter sent out every August.

"Whoever wrote it obviously broadened the definition out on purpose, and it covers a lot of ground," he said.

Aside from the law's effects on seemingly tangential subjects, critics said SB 99 threatens to stifle important classroom discussions on sexual health, gender identity, and personal development. Critics also said it could reduce the number of students who learn about contraception — knowledge that has been shown to help reduce rates of teen pregnancy — and about LGBTQ+ rights. The law could also discourage teachers from including certain subjects in their lessons or hinder their ability to respond freely to questions or comments from students, the critics said.

Montana's education department mandates that schools' sexual education programs "reflect the values of the community" and be abstinence-based and age-appropriate.

Pamela Kohler, an associate professor of global health at the University of Washington, said that the evidence "overwhelmingly shows that abstinence-only education is not effective at preventing sexual activity or pregnancy" and that "many of those at highest risk for unwanted pregnancy and STDs receive no or inadequate sex education."

More than 40% of Montana high schoolers have had sex, according to the 2021 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey, and just under half of them are not using condoms regularly, which raises their risk of becoming pregnant and developing sexually transmitted diseases. A study from the University of Montana released in 2017 found that more than 80% of students did not know basic information about HIV transmission and prevention.

Failing to teach about gender identity, sexual health, intimacy, and other elements of human sexuality means young people may have trouble finding accurate information, said Michelle Slaybaugh, director of social impact and strategic communications for SIECUS, an organization that advocates for comprehensive sexual education. And it makes students grappling with their sexual or gender identity more vulnerable, Slaybaugh added.

"Relationships and sexuality education has been proven to keep young people safer from bullying, help manage their feelings, concentrate in school, and develop the long-lasting skills they need to have healthy, strong relationships," Slaybaugh said.

SB 99 also prohibits people who work at a clinic or organization that provides abortions from speaking or teaching at schools across the state, even if their lesson has nothing to do with abortion. That stipulation may have led to the termination of at least one long-standing relationship between a school district and a provider.

Bridgercare, a nonprofit reproductive health organization based in Bozeman that this year beat out the state health department to administer the state's Title X program funding for family planning, had partnered with Bozeman Public Schools for 25 years to provide comprehensive sexual education to students. The organization, which does not provide abortions, has not been invited to provide instruction to Bozeman campuses this school year, according to Bridgercare officials.

The Bozeman school district's superintendent, Casey Bertram, declined to be interviewed about the law and Bridgercare's ties to the district.

"Whether parents like it or not, teens are navigating the challenges of adolescence and all of the emotional challenges that can bring," said Cami Armijo-Grover, Bridgercare's education director. "The best thing we can do for our kids is to educate them on how their bodies work and give them tools to navigate the feelings and challenges that come with puberty and relationships."


KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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By Carly Graf

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