Straying from the Flock: Sex Education & Parental Rights

Snapshot: After a student approaches her with a sexual health question, a health educator must decide whether or not to help the student by answering her question, knowing that the student's parents had decided to opt their daughter out of the school's sex education class.


Case Description: Sex education today remains hotly contested across the country. Currently, just under half of American states require schools teach sex education. And for good reason - well designed sex education programs can decrease risky sexual behavior among teens as well as the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. At the same time, over two thirds of states allow parents to opt their children out of sex education should their school offer it. A similar number of states allow parents to get involved in their school’s sex education program. Given the important interest parents have in the education of their children, these laws attempt to strike a balance between the promotion of public health and the interests of the parent.

Of course, students themselves have a vital interest in what they’re taught, and their preferences do not always line up with those of their parents. As a result, educators can find themselves caught in between their duties to their students and their duties to the parents they serve, as well as their legal duties as teachers. This case study explores that tension through the story of a young health educator who needs to decide whether or not to provide sexual health information to a student whose parents opted her out of the school’s sex education program. Should she provide the student with the requested information? What is the best way to honor both her commitment to her students and her legal and ethical obligations as a public school teacher?

"Straying from the Flock" is valuable for teachers, parents and school leaders who want to grapple with the challenges inherent in balances the interests and autonomy of both parents and students, especially with respect to sex education. Groups may want to use the “case study discussion protocol” to guide their conversation about this case.

Case Commentary: 

  • In an illuminating commentary on this case, Hannah Widmaier discusses the limits of parental discretion in dictating their child's sex education.

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