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An Educational Improvement: the "Opt-In Policy"

By Arnold Burron

Could your child be sexually molested at school? Boulder public schools have been in an uproar over a recent incident in which an older boy physically molested a younger boy during a classroom movie. While the Boulder incident was isolated, Colorado legislators are considering a bill to address a related problem, which exists at public schools all over the country.

Almost everybody interested public education has heard about the notorious incident in the East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania middle school. There, agents of the public schools performed vaginal examinations on middle-school girls who were herded into a room and ordered to undress. The girls were, at the very least, unwilling participants in a grotesque invasion of privacy, and at worst, terrified victims of institutionally-sanctioned molestation.

Officials in Boulder were deeply apologetic about the single incident of molestation, and vowed to make sure it never happened again. But the school bureaucrats in Pennsylvania insisted that there was nothing wrong with the forced gynecological exams. The bureaucrats asserted that school officials had sent notification of a required physical examination to parents, that parents had been apprized that they could have the exam done by a physician of their choice, that parents had been asked to contact the school to express their objections if they did not want the school to do the exam, and that few parents, if any, had objected.

Critics of the administration vigorously responded with allegations that “at least half of the parents had not received any notification whatsoever,” and that those who did receive notification were not told the nature of the examination. Nobody warned the parents that their children would be stripped naked for genital inspection.

The East Stroudsburg case is the most graphic example of what can happen when educational policies concerning controversial issues are not updated to reflect changing social realities and growing diversity in the public schools.

Current policies in Colorado and other states make it difficult for families to protect their children from abusive, disturbing, or offensive events at school. At most schools in Colorado, if parents get wind of some non-academic school requirement which is offensive to their value system, they can approach their school officials and ask for permission to have their child excused from participation. Sometimes permission is granted, but often it is denied.

In rare instances, in districts in which school officials have a higher than average level of sensitivity to constituents, instead of waiting for offended parents to complain, the officials contact parents and say, in effect “We’re doing such-and-such. If you don’t want your child to be included, let us know.”

This “opt-out” system is much better than nothing, but it has an inherent problem, as the East Stroudsburg fiasco illustrates. When school officials offered a vague opt-out, and didn’t hear from parents, it was logical–but not accurate– to assume that parents did not object. Controversy erupted, emotions ran wild, accusations abounded, and conflict ensued.

There is currently before the Colorado Legislature a proposal for a policy which reflects thoughtfulness and sensitivity on the part of its sponsor Jeannie Adkins (R-Parker). It’s a conflict-preventer. It is genuinely respectful of ideological and cultural diversity, and it serves both public educators and their constituents equally well. Its an “Opt-in” policy.

Opt-in works like this: Teachers who plan to tread into areas of potential controversy (like having a guest speaker to promote condom use by teenagers) must first send a letter to each student’s home, explaining the specific nature of an activity or material, and describing the specific objectives to be attained through the experience. Parents can thus make a prudent decision based on clear information. Families can then “opt-in” to the event by signing permission slips. If the families do not affirmatively choose to have the child participate, the child cannot be subjected to the experience.

The “opt-in” policy under legislative consideration is limited only to sex education programs. But sex education is hardly the only program which offends many families values. It would be desirable to expand opt-in to all areas of the curriculum.

Opt-in protects teachers, as well as families. Teachers who want to challenge students with controversial experiences or materials are protected from post hoc criticism; students are guaranteed an education which is respectful of their deeply-held values, and parents are provided with genuine input into the curriculum.

Almost every public school these days claims to have tremendous “respect for diversity.” Schools that really want to walk the diversity walk can take a major step forward by voluntarily adopting opt-in programs.

Dr. Arnold Burron is Professor of Education and Director of Center for Constructive Agreement at the University of Northern Colorado; he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden. https://i2i.org.

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