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States

How a Parents’ Rights Law Halted a Child Abuse Prevention Program

By Libby Stanford & Caitlynn Peetz — December 21, 2023 7 min read
People hold signs during a protest at the state house in Trenton, N.J., Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. New Jersey lawmakers are set to vote Monday on legislation to eliminate most religious exemptions for vaccines for schoolchildren, as opponents crowd the statehouse grounds with flags and banners, including some reading "My Child, My Choice."
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Two North Carolina districts paused a program intended to prevent child sexual abuse for nearly three months this fall out of fear that offering it would violate the state’s new Parents’ Bill of Rights law.

Now, program leaders there are concerned students are missing out on education that could help them identify and get out of situations in which they are being abused.

For more than 40 years, the Orange County Rape Crisis Center has partnered with the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school districts to provide the “Safe Touch” program, intended to help children identify if they have been victims of sexual assault and how to get help. It’s usually provided to every student in every grade each year, with content and examples tailored to students’ maturity level and “their expanding capacity to understand nuance,” said Rachel Valentine, executive director of the Crisis Center.

But not this school year.

The two school districts notified the Crisis Center at the beginning of the school year that they needed to pause the program amid concerns the program’s brief mentions of sexuality and gender identity in the youngest grades violate the state’s recently enacted “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

The state’s legislature passed the law in August, collecting enough votes to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.

North Carolina is one of six states that has enacted a parents’ bill of rights in the past two years, with the policies often restricting instruction on race, gender, and sexuality. North Carolina joined Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, and Louisiana in instituting such a law, according to FutureEd, an education policy research center based at Georgetown University. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives also passed a parents’ rights bill of their own earlier this year, but it has not made it through the Senate.

The laws, which are often vaguely worded, are a result of a movement to give parents more of a voice in students’ education that grew out of opposition to COVID-era school shutdowns and mask mandates. But they’ve led to confusion and chaos in districts throughout the country. In Florida, the state agency went back and forth over whether the Advanced Placement Psychology course violated its law because of mentions of gender identity and sexuality and, in Indiana, a law requiring parents to approve student name and pronoun changes led some districts to seek parent approval even for their children to go by their common nicknames.

“Way too often, parents are stiff-armed by school districts when they have a question or concern about their child or their child’s education,” state Sen. Amy Galey, a Republican who sponsored the North Carolina bill, told Education Week. “They don’t know what their rights are and they run up into a wall when they’re trying to get basic information. So the real point behind the parents’ bill of rights is to give parents the power and the tools they need so they can be effective advocates for their children.”

The North Carolina law specifies a set of 10 parental rights, such as the right for parents to direct the education of their child, to make health-care decisions for their child, and to be notified if their child has been the victim of a crime. It also states districts must have programs to “assist parents and families in effectively participating in their child’s education,” and that parents can opt their children out of “reproductive health and safety education programs.”

Most of the provisions listed in the law are already common practice in districts, but a later section of the law that prohibit schools from teaching about gender identity or sexuality to students in kindergarten through 4th grade caused confusion in districts like Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro.

The law was never intended to stop programs like Safe Touch, Galey said.

“We talked about Safe Touch programs specifically with the bill drafters who work for the legislative body and did not want to interfere with the ability to prevent abuse of children in any way,” she said, adding that legislative staff assured lawmakers they would not affect Safe Touch programs by passing the bill.

Even so, school leaders were unsure how the law would affect the Safe Touch program, because there are some mentions of sexuality in lessons for the early elementary grades, Valentine said. Because being a member of the LGBTQ+ community is a risk factor for sexual abuse, she said, the program “incorporates some education on those issues that is very kid-friendly.”

“Basically, we let kids know that some people are gay, and that’s OK, but it’s not OK to use their identity as a reason to make fun of them or hurt them in any way,” she said.

It took 12 weeks for school district leaders to determine the program was still OK to use. But the Crisis Center now only has the time and staffing to provide the lessons at Chapel Hill-Carrboro this year. Orange County will go an entire year without the regularly scheduled lessons, which Valentine said is “extremely concerning.”

Neither school district responded to requests for comment for this story.

The Safe Touch program educates students in elementary school about how to express their personal boundaries, teaching them that nobody should touch their bodies in a way that makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable, how to identify if someone is manipulating them into believing an inappropriate touch is appropriate, and that it is never a child’s fault if someone crosses their boundaries. It also includes education about bullying and cyberbullying, internet safety, and how to ask an adult for help.

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“We actually don’t know what it does to the kids’ education and retention to skip a year because we’ve never done it before,” Valentine said. “What we do know is there are students every year who disclose [that they’ve been a victim of abuse] as a result of our programs either to us, or to other adults later on, so a yearlong gap is a pretty big disruption, especially for students who may be experiencing sexual abuse and this program is how they learn to disclose that.”

Staff at the Crisis Center are training school counselors in the Orange County district to provide some of the program’s key lessons to students themselves, Valentine said.

‘Unintended consequences’

The legislation and its impact on a program intended to keep children safe is an example of the “unintended consequences” of restricting teaching on gender and sexuality, Valentine said.

It was drafted without the input of school district officials or leaders of sexual abuse prevention programs like hers, so it is “vague” and difficult to interpret, she said.

“If child development experts had been consulted from the beginning, we wouldn’t be having these issues that we’re having now,” Valentine said.

Galey said the lawmakers primarily talked to parents when drafting the bill because they were the focus of the legislation.

Part of the issue comes from a lack of clarity around the consequences of violating the law, said Rosie Miesner, a research associate at the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina, an education policy research center based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That means teachers and district leaders are prone to respond with an abundance of caution.

“The bill has some vague language around, teachers who violate this legislation will be open to disciplinary action,” Miesner said. “In one district that could mean a review and a conversation, and in another that could mean firing.”

The bill also requires districts to establish policies and procedures for following its provisions, which takes time away from academics, Miesner said. So far, there’s been little to no guidance from the state’s department of public instruction on how to develop those procedures.

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“There’s a real logistical burden that comes along with these policies that I don’t think is really grasped by the general public,” Miesner said. “If you read through the bill, there’s all these parts where it’s like, ‘schools must establish or develop a procedure,’ and that doesn’t just happen.”

Representatives from the department didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment, but Galey said she’s heard the department has been working closely with districts to help them come into compliance with the law.

“It’s just common sense that school districts should already have had policies and procedures in place to equip parents to advocate effectively with the school system,” Galey said. “If it’s an administrative burden to put those things into place now, well, they should’ve done it a long time ago.”

Although the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school systems were able to confirm with legal counsel that the bill allows sexual abuse education, Valentine said there are more problems brewing. The most pressing is what program and school leaders will do if a parent or community member complains about the program, which could again lead to a lengthy review process and a pause.

Valentine also worries that an even more restrictive law could be proposed in a future legislative session that would prevent any sex education in elementary school—not only a ban on instruction about sexuality and gender identity—which would “put our program squarely in the target.”

“We’re trying to move forward with what we have, but also think toward the future and make some considerations about how we might pivot, if need be, away from school-based programming, if that’s what we’re forced to do,” Valentine said. “It wouldn’t be ideal, but it’s something we have to be thinking about.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2024 edition of Education Week as How a Parents’ Rights Law Halted a Child Abuse Prevention Program

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