Stephanie McDowell

In the wake of last week’s school board meeting, Bozeman students and teachers are set to lose access to vital support for sex education. Unless our state can define the bounds of SB 99, a vague piece of legislation pushed out by the 2021 Legislature, students and teachers across the state will remain caught in a web of bureaucracy and censorship.

For 25 years, Bridgercare has provided expert sexual health education in our community – including in our public schools. This has long been a strong partnership; teachers who wanted to provide their students with comprehensive, high-quality sex ed, but weren’t experts themselves, were able to lean on us to bridge that knowledge gap.

Students, living through the challenges that come with puberty and adolescent relationships, were provided with nonjudgmental, compassionate, medically accurate resources to help them navigate those tricky waters. But new regulations have effectively ended this partnership, as Bozeman Schools are now wary of partnering with any outside organization for fear of running afoul of SB 99.

Stephanie McDowell
Stephanie McDowell

SB 99, according to the sponsor of the bill, was meant to do two things: first, require parental notification on sex ed and provide opportunities to opt their children out; second, bar abortion providers from teaching in schools.

It had been standard practice on Bridgercare’s end to provide advanced notification and curriculum transparency, and Bridgercare does not provide abortions – so we felt that SB 99 would have little effect on our education efforts.

We were wrong.

School districts have received legal guidance to take a hyper-cautious approach, interpreting “human sexuality” in the bill as applying to classes far outside of what has historically been considered sex ed.

By this definition, history units on gay rights and gender equality movements could be subject to SB 99. English classes on any novels covering intimate relationships (like Romeo and Juliet), could be subject to SB 99. Bozeman Superintendent Casey Bertram said that this “feels like censorship.” We agree.

It’s the nature of public bureaucracies to be cautious. Litigation and controversy are expensive and draining. So, when noncompliance carries serious risk, it's easy to understand why school districts across the state would take a conservative approach. But in the process of avoiding conflict, it’s the students and faculty who suffer the most.

According to the 2021 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey, over 40% of Montana high school students have had sex. A little under half of those reported not using condoms the last time they had sex. 11% of Montana high schoolers also reported having been forced to have sex against their will.

These are real issues that our Montana teens face today. We have fantastic teachers who want to support their students with sex ed that gives them accurate information, helps students assess how personal values inform decisions around sex, and educates them about consent and healthy relationships.

However, these dedicated teachers often don’t have the tools or training to give our kids the help that they need and deserve. Now, teachers could face consequences for asking for help.

No one is happy about this situation. And until school districts get clarity on what exactly SB 99 is supposed to do – whether that clarity comes from the legislature or the courts – teachers and students will pay the price.

Stephanie McDowell is the Executive Director of Bridgercare, a nonprofit sexual and reproductive health clinic that has served Southwest Montana for 50 years.