Testimony on H. 3728 from Ann Warner, Chief Executive Officer
by WREN STAFF on Mar 15, 2023
Thank you for the opportunity to submit written testimony to this Committee. The Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization with a mission to build a movement to advance the health, economic well-being, and rights of South Carolina’s women, girls, gender expansive people, and their families. We have more than 40,000 people in our statewide network. We are asking that you vote NO on H. 3728.
The proposed legislation would weaken the foundational obligation of the schools: to provide an environment where students can safely learn, develop and grow. Our testimony focuses on three specific problems in Section 59-29-620(C), which states: “A student, administrator, teacher, staff member, other school or district employee, or volunteer shall not be required to attend any instruction, training, or presentation that has the goal or purpose of studying, exploring, or informing attendees about gender roles or stereotypes, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, or romantic or sexual relationships unless it is prescribed as part of a corrective action plan pursuant to Section 59-29-630. No student shall attend any instruction, training, or presentation including these topics unless the school has received written permission from the student’s parent.”
The consequences of this Section include: 1) the detrimental impact on LGBTQ+ students; 2) the weakening of critical health information that will affect all students; and 3) the undermining of educators’ legal and ethical obligation to report signs of child abuse and neglect.
1) First, by allowing any school employee to opt out of trainings that relate to gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation, we are undermining the skills and capacity that are needed to create a safe and affirming school environment that welcomes all students. The reality is that schools are often unsafe for students of marginalized identities, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) students. Students “frequently experience negative or hostile school climates, including bullying and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity at school… which can threaten LGBTQ students’ well-being.” [i] Professional development for educators and other school professionals is one of the core strategies to promote a safe school environment. [ii] Studies show that when LGBTQ youth view school personnel as supportive, they feel safer at school, report less absenteeism, experience less victimization based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, feel like they belong in their school community, and maintain higher grade point averages (Greytak et al., 2013; Kosciw et al., 2020; Seelman et al., 2012). [iii] When we choose to divest in resources and training for professional development, we put students at risk for rejection, depression and suicide, homelessness, and other negative outcomes. We should be doing everything we can to reinforce our educators’ skills that will support all students’ academic achievement, psychological well-being, and long-term educational aspirations.
2) Second, this provision could prohibit SC schools and teachers from providing comprehensive sexual health education to youth in our state. This is a drastic change from current law and would have major consequences. H.3728 would completely change the way that students access health, sexual abuse, and assault awareness curriculum.[iv] The current educational standard is to allow parents to opt- out of instruction. The proposed bill would convert it to an opt-in standard. Shifting this opt-in burden to parents would disadvantage our children, who rely on health information they receive in schools to make informed healthy and safe decisions.
Not only is it critical for the well-being of our students; this kind of health information is crucial to our state’s public health and economic development goals. The reduction in the SC teen unplanned birth rate and the reduction of unplanned teen births nationally is directly linked to the increase of quality, medically accurate, evidence-based sexual and reproductive health education. South Carolina still has a long way to go when it comes to preventing STIs among youth: According to the most recent data released from the CDC, SC has the 11th highest teen birth rate (ages 15-19, ranks 3rd nationally for gonorrhea rates (all ages), and 4th for chlamydia rates (all ages). Undermining the training and teaching in reproductive and sexual health in schools would undoubtedly send our state in the wrong direction – increasing teen pregnancy rates that we have worked so hard to reduce, and increasing STI infections that are already far too high among our youth.
3) Finally, it is crucial to remember that South Carolina has high rates of child abuse and neglect. Our school personnel are a critical source of support and educational professionals (teachers, counselors, principals, school attendance officers) are mandated reporters[v]. Mandated reporters must report abuse or neglect when, in their professional capacity, they receive information giving them reason to believe that a child’s physical or mental health has been, or may be, adversely affected by abuse or neglect. A decision to report must be based upon a reasonable belief that a child has been, or may be, abused or neglected. According to data provided by DSS, from January through November of 2022, there were nearly 62,000 reports of possible child abuse and neglect in South Carolina. About 22% of those reports came through school personnel. If educators do not receive training, they will not have the information needed to fulfill their ethical and legal obligations to detect and report signs of child abuse.
Our students deserve educators who are trained and ready to protect their safety, their health, and their well-being. In order to support schools where every student is safe, valued, included, and free to learn, we urge you to vote no on H. 3728.
[iv] Section 59-32-20(B) of the South Carolina Code of Laws was amended June 2014 (H.4061, Act 293) to read that the State Board of Education through the South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) shall support districts in providing age-appropriate instruction in sexual abuse and assault awareness and prevention to all students in four-year-old kindergarten, where offered, through twelfth grade