Colorado law will soon require students who receive sexual education to learn about consent in school.
But the road to passing that bill was bumpy. The final legislation was heavily amended and passed in the last two days of the legislative session. The bill is still awaiting the governor’s signature.
In response to parent questions, Chalkbeat prepared the below explainer of how sexual education works in Colorado’s public schools, and what exactly was changed through this year’s bill.
First of all, Colorado doesn’t require sexual education in schools
Colorado is one of few states that doesn’t require that students learn either about sexual education or HIV.
School districts can choose whether or not to teach sexual education, and the state does not track how many districts do or don’t teach sexual education.
Colorado’s local control laws also mean districts choose their curriculum if they do choose to teach sexual education. State law sets some basic requirements, mainly that education should be comprehensive and medically accurate. State standards developed by the Colorado Department of Education provide broad guidelines on what kids should know at each grade level. You can see those here.
Parents can opt-out
In Colorado, if districts are going to teach sexual education, they are required to first inform parents about what they will teach so that parents can choose to keep their children out of those classes. Parents can opt children out of entire sexual education courses, or they can get more information about the topics that will be covered and keep their children out of only some of those lessons.
This year’s bill doesn’t change those basics
The bill this year, House Bill 1032, leaves intact districts’ ability to decide whether to offer sex education and parents’ option to opt out.
So, what is changing?
The most significant change to the sexual education law is that if districts choose to teach it, they must include lessons on consent.
Consent was defined in the statue as “the affirmative, unambiguous, voluntary, continuous, knowing agreement between all participants in each physical act within the course of a sexual encounter or interpersonal relationship.”
To promote “healthy relationships,” the new law says schools that teach sexual education must include instruction on “how to communicate consent, recognize communication of consent, recognize withdrawal of consent, and understand age of consent.”
Consent is a subject many states are trying to add to their sexual education requirements in response to discussions about sexual assault. Individual schools, including a Catholic school in Portland, Oregon, are also adding discussions about consent to their curriculum.
Colorado’s standards already suggested the introduction of the topic of healthy relationships at sixth grade.
What changed with regards to LGBTQ students?
Not much. A state law passed in 2013 already included a requirement that if schools teach sexual education, they must take into account the needs of all students.
The existing language said sexual education must be “meaningful to the experiences and needs of communities of color; immigrant communities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities; people with physical or intellectual disabilities; people who have experienced sexual victimization; and others whose experiences have traditionally been left out of sexual health education, programs, and policies.”
Originally, this year’s bill would have taught students about different “relationship models” including “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.” That part was taken out of the final approved bill.
Lawmakers and proponents of the bill say the only reason they intended to include the existing language again was to reaffirm its importance because they have heard from LGBTQ students who say that they are receiving sexual education that doesn’t include information relevant to them.
Will kindergarten students be learning about sexual education?
The bill approved this year states it does not apply to students in kindergarten through third grade.
Colorado law requires that any sexual education be age appropriate. As an example from the state’s standards which help guide that, fifth graders learn about human anatomy and puberty, while high school students learn about sexually transmitted diseases and how to avoid unwanted pregnancy.
The bill does do more to ban abstinence-only education
Colorado law already prohibited abstinence-only education, but some districts were still providing this education by contracting with outside organizations to offer the programming. The bill approved this year makes it explicitly clear that schools must not “engage the instructional services” of such groups.
That doesn’t mean schools can’t discuss abstinence. The comprehensive education requirement states that the sexual education instruction must include medically accurate information about methods to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including abstinence, contraception, condoms and other methods. In discussing these methods, teachers should not use shame or bias.
Comprehensive sexual education also doesn’t have to include pregnancy outcomes
If schools or districts choose to teach sexual education, there are certain components that are required, such as pregnancy prevention, but talking about what happens after a pregnancy is optional.
If schools or districts do choose to talk about pregnancy outcomes, then they must include all options such as adoption, abortion, and parenting if they choose to keep the child.
The new law does add that students are now required to learn about Colorado’s “safe haven” laws which allow a parent to hand over an infant, up to 72 hours old, to an employee at any fire station or hospital with no questions asked.
What about charter schools?
Charter schools, which are funded by public dollars and can be approved by school districts, but are independently managed, can choose to waive many state laws. Like other public schools, charters are not required to teach sexual education, but if they do, state law says that just like other schools, they must teach it in a comprehensive way.
This year’s bill would have originally prohibited the state from giving charter schools waivers from the sexual education law, but the final version of the bill keeps that option for charter schools.
Right now, there are five charter schools that have waivers from those requirements. That means that they may be teaching sexual education in a way that doesn’t conform with state law in being comprehensive.
When charter schools apply for a waiver from this or any other state law, they must explain their reasoning for wanting to not follow that law and must explain what they plan to do instead. Colorado’s State Board of Education must vote to give final approval for those waivers.
The bill also set aside money for grants
The 2013 law already had created a grant program for schools or districts that say they need more money to offer comprehensive sex education, but money was never put into that program, so it essentially never started. This year, the bill sets aside $1 million to start offering grants to schools or districts.
As part of the grant program, a committee that will include a parent representative, a youth representative, and someone who represents the needs of students of color, among several others, will consider the applications to award the funds. The group must be convened by July 1.
If your school or district already offers sexual education, there might not be much of a difference. Two metro-area districts reached in the last week, Jeffco Public Schools and Westminster Public Schools, said that they are currently reviewing their curriculum to make sure it complies with the new law.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct that the final version of the bill passed this year will not change a charter school’s ability to seek a waiver from the state’s sexual education laws.