On June 18th, Governor Abbott vetoed S.B 1109 – a bill requiring age-appropriate instruction for middle and high school students regarding the prevention of child abuse, family, and dating violence as part of the health curriculum. Why is this important? According to the CDC, nearly 1 in 11 female and 1 in 14 male high school students reported physical dating violence in the last year, and approximately 1 in 8 female and 1 in 26 male high school students reported sexual dating violence.
Sadly, child abuse is even worse in Texas, which ranked No. 1 in the nation for number of child abuse fatalities and No. 3 for most instances of confirmed child abuse cases in 2019. Despite the severity and impact of these issues, they are rarely included within educational discussions and resource allocation. With little attention at school and a lack of awareness among parents, students are left ill-equipped in such challenging circumstances.
Abbott cited the bill’s lack of a parental opt-out clause as the reason for his veto. Like many Texans, Abbott adamantly defends parental rights. I counter by asking who really benefits from an opt-out clause in this situation, and who gets neglected in the revision?
To define the constructs for opt-out allowances under Texas Education Code: Sec A26.010.AA entitles a parent to remove their child from a class or school activity that conflicts with their religious or moral beliefs. The general premise for this parental privilege is that a child’s best interest lies within their parents’ jurisdiction, to which I would generally agree.
On this topic, however, I take issue with the way in which an opt-out clause enables potential exploitation of parental privileges and subsequent harm to vulnerable populations. Statistics have shown consistent evidence that most violence to children occurs within their homes or by people they know. Consequently, a child’s wellbeing, let alone their educational interests, calls for a stronger policy stance.
While all parents’ religious, moral, or value-based objections should be respected, a distinction may be drawn between exposure to material and violation of parental rights to further emphasize a state’s responsibility in the protection of its youth over the satiation of their parent(s). As it stands, the U.S. Constitution does not allow parents to prevent a school from providing information to its enrolled students. Certainly, the rights of parents to voice their dissent should be warranted no matter the topic. However, there may be other ways of recognizing parents’ rights to involvement than banning compulsory curriculum that would in fact benefit the child.
State law should prioritize the child’s interest by presenting them with the option to receive services, which may be overruled by the parent on the condition that they obtain, review, and ideally implement instructional material used in the school’s education curriculum. Requiring that parents receive comprehensive information and exercises from the school will encourage later discussions with the child according to an empirical framework with corresponding instructional material.
Additionally, information addressing potentially harmful conduct by parents may persuade future pursuit of information, resources, and even care for the child. Enacting such a statutory provision in lieu of standard opt-out procedures creates a better context for care of the youth by parents who have proper knowledge and tools for practice.
So, what now? Ronnie Morris, co-author of S.B. 1109, voiced a willingness to compromise if S.B. 1109 was added to the special session agenda. Abbott has since granted this request, which gives us a small window of time to act! If you don’t believe children deserve to suffer for the stubbornness of their authority (i.e., waiting two years until the next legislative session), I urge you to put pressure on Abbott and other state representatives to not let this opportunity pass.
Catherine Haberl is a Graduate Research Assistant and student at UT Austin