A series of parents and grandparents told the Senate Education Committee that they believe Arizona’s sex education laws allow for immorality and pornography in schools, urging the committee members to support a bill proposing sweeping reforms that had been declared dead only hours earlier and wasn’t on the agenda.
Sen. Sylvia Allen, who chairs the committee, had already declared that her controversial Senate Bill 1082 would not advance when she gaveled in the panel’s first hearing of the 2020 legislative session. Nonetheless, she allowed more than an hour of testimony from people supporting the measure.
The bill sought to enact expansive changes to Arizona’s laws governing sex education in schools, including banning instruction until seventh grade. Another provision was widely interpreted as prohibiting discussions of homosexuality in sex ed, sparking denunciations of the proposal from many corners.
Allen, a Republican from Snowflake, has vowed to bring back her bill in some form. She argued that SB1082 could not advance because opponents and the media lied about what it would do.
“This has been one of the most uncomfortable hearings I’ve had to sit through,” Allen said at the end of the lengthy committee hearing.
Every speaker that came before the committee Tuesday afternoon spoke in favor of SB1082. Most were parents and grandparents of Arizona students, though several came from out of state to speak as experts on the perils of sex education in schools.
Because the legislation that the speakers had come to support was not actually on the panel’s agenda, they spoke during an unusual “public comment” period in the legislative committee hearing. That meant that the committee members were not allowed to respond.
The hearing room was full of people who had come to an earlier rally held by Allen and the Protecting Arizona Children Coalition. Many wore “Stop CSE,” or comprehensive sex education, pins that were handed out at the rally.
The first to speak was Sharon Slater of Family Watch International, who helped Allen craft SB1082 and gave a similar presentation to one she gave in September to a conservative forum at which Allen and Speaker of the House of Representatives Rusty Bowers spoke.
Slater and Family Watch International have spent much of the past 20 years opposing LGBTQ issues, mostly on the global stage. In 2012, FWI pushed the Nigerian Bar Association to not decriminalize same-sex relationships, and it sought to ban same-sex marriage in Romania in 2018.
Slater said it was a “tragedy” that Allen’s bill had been labeled as anti-gay, and called the debate over sex education the “battle of our times.”
Many of the parents and grandparents who came to speak relayed either stories they had heard of other parents who said they were unable to opt their children out of sex education or voiced concern that some sex education curricula is developed by Planned Parenthood.
Shortly before the hearing, opponent’s of Allen’s measure gathered on the Arizona Senate lawn to voice their opposition and present a different bill.
Senate Bill 1120, by Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, would allow students to opt out of instead of opt into sex education and directs schools to create age-appropriate sex education curriculum for grades K-12.
The bill also requires sex ed curriculum to include relationship skills, personal boundaries, consent, right to privacy and resources for victims of sexual assault.
Additionally, it mandates discussions on sexual abuse and assault in at-risk populations.
“It does not discriminate,” Steele said at the press conference. “It gives parents the right to opt out.”
School counselors, doctors and sex educators spoke out in support of Steele’s bill.
Zoe Ebling, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, spoke about what she said was a part of the discussion that most ignore when it comes to sex education.
Ebling was abused from ages 6 to 12 by a family member and was unable to recognize that was being abused.
“This topic tends to make people feel uncomfortable,” Ebling told the crowd on the Senate lawn. “We do not teach children of the dangers of a hot stove by removing them from the kitchen entirely.”
When asked about how bills like Allen’s could impact sexual education that could be helpful for victims of sexual abuse, Slater of Family Watch International stated 1082 does not preclude personal safety instruction.
“We are 1000% behind giving children the information they need,” Slater told Arizona Mirror, before adding “this is something we can’t hammer out in a media interview right here.”
Currently, 26 states, plus Guam, have enacted some form of legislation that requires the state to either study or develop age-appropriate child sexual abuse prevention and identification classes beginning in pre-kindergarten in order to educate both students and teachers about the signs of child sexual abuse.
Arizona is not one of those states.