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Education Laws and Regulations

Advisory Opinion on the Parental Notification Law

To: Superintendents of Schools and Charter School Leaders
School Committee Chairpersons
School Principals
Health Education Coordinators
Other Interested Parties
From:Robert V. Antonucci, Commissioner of Education
Date:April 7, 1997
Re:Advisory Opinion on the Parental Notification Law (General Laws Chapter 71, Section 32A) -- Local Action Needed by September 1, 1997

Attachment 1
Attachment 2
Attachment 3
Regulations

This advisory opinion concerns Chapter 291 of the Acts of 1996, An Act Relative to Sex Education, which is codified as General Laws Chapter 71, Section 32A. Sometimes referred to as the Parental Notification Law, § 32A requires each school committee to adopt and publish a policy by September 1, 1997 ensuring that parents and guardians are notified about any curriculum that primarily involves human sexual education or human sexuality issues, and permitting them to exempt their children from any portion of that curriculum without penalty. Schools are to make instructional materials for said curricula reasonably accessible to parents, guardians and others for inspection and review. A copy of § 32A is enclosed as Attachment 1.

Section 32A directs the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to promulgate regulations for resolution of disputes that may arise under it. We are in the process of developing those regulations. We believe disputes will be rare if school committees, superintendents, principals, teachers and parents work together to ensure that the policies adopted by the school district are clear, consistent with the law and well-understood by all members of the school community. For that reason, we are publishing this advisory to inform you about the requirements of the new law and our understanding of its intent.

1. What curriculum does § 32A cover?

Section 32A refers to "curriculum which primarily involves human sexual education or human sexuality issues." The § 32A notice and opt-out provisions apply to any courses (typically, sex education or portions of a health education or science course), school assemblies or other instructional activities and programs that focus on human sexual education, the biological mechanics of human reproduction and sexual development, or human sexuality issues.

Section 32A covers only the portion of a course or curriculum that "primarily involves human sexual education or human sexuality issues." For example, a health education course may include a variety of topics including nutrition; fitness; prevention of tobacco, alcohol and drug use; first aid; and human sexuality. Only the sessions of the health education course dealing with human sexuality are covered by § 32A. In contrast, a course on sex education would be covered in full by the law.

The word "curriculum" used in § 32A refers to a planned course of study that is part of the school's instructional program for some or all students. Instructional school assemblies that students are scheduled to attend during the school day are considered "curriculum." On the other hand, clubs and other extracurricular activities that students may join voluntarily are not considered "curriculum" for purposes of § 32A.

2. What does § 32A require the school committee to do?

The school committee (or in the case of a charter school, the board of trustees) is required to adopt a written policy containing three elements:

  1. providing notice to parents of their rights under § 32A;
  2. allowing parents to exempt their children from any portion of the curriculum that primarily involves human sexual education or human sexuality issues, through written notification from the parent/guardian to the school principal; and
  3. making program instruction materials for said curricula reasonably accessible to parents, guardians, educators, school administrators and others for inspection and review.

We recommend that the school committee include in the policy a protocol for resolving disputes that may arise under this law, concerning the right of notice, exemption, and access to materials. (See Question # 8.)

According to the statute, the policy must be distributed to each principal in the district by September 1, 1997 and each year thereafter. In addition, the statute directs the superintendent of schools to send a copy of the school committee's policy to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

A sample school committee policy is enclosed as Attachment 2.

3. How do schools notify parents of their rights under § 32?

At the beginning of each school year, each school district must notify parents that they have the right:

  1. to exempt their children from any portion of the curriculum that primarily involves human sexual education or human sexuality issues, through written notification from the parent/guardian to the school principal; and
  2. to inspect and review program instruction materials for these curricula. The notice should describe the school district's process for ensuring reasonable access to the instructional materials. (See Question # 5.)

Local school officials have the discretion to decide the best way to get information to parents about § 32A. Some school districts may send the notice from one central office, such as the superintendent or the health education coordinator. Others may place the responsibility on the principal of each school to notify the parents of the students enrolled in that school. The notice may be included in a newsletter that is routinely sent to parents, in a student handbook or course of study booklet that is provided to parents at the beginning of the school year, or in a letter to parents specifically on this topic. School officials may choose any reasonable method of transmittal that will ensure parental notification, for example, by mailing the notice directly to parents, or by sending it home with students.

The notice should be specific enough so that parents can understand what courses or classes are covered, and what they need to do to exercise their right to review program instruction materials and to exempt their children from the course or class. As with other official school notices to parents, the school should make arrangements as needed for parents whose language is other than English. A sample notice is enclosed as Attachment 3.

4. Does § 32A mean that schools must receive consent from parents before students may take a course or class involving sex education?

No. Section 32A requires schools to notify parents of curricula which primarily involve human sexual education or human sexuality issues, and of their right to review program instruction materials and exempt their children from any portion of these curricula. Neither § 32A nor any other law requires consent from parents before students may take a course involving sex education.

5. How do schools provide parents and others with reasonable access to program instruction materials under § 32A?

Section 32A says, "To the extent practicable, program instruction materials shall be made reasonably accessible to parents, guardians, educators, school administrators, and others for inspection and review." School officials have discretion under the law to decide on reasonable methods of access. One option is to put a copy of the course syllabus and planned instructional materials for each course involving sex education in the public library or libraries in the community. Another option is to have a copy available for review at the school(s). In cases where the instructional materials are limited in supply or are costly, the school may meet its obligations under § 32A by arranging for parents to review the materials at certain times at the school.

"Reasonable access" and "practicability" are the standards in the statute concerning inspection and review of instructional materials. Schools should not restrict access unreasonably. For example, as with public records requests, the parent's request for access to instructional materials under § 32A need not be in writing. However, schools may ask parents or others who wish to review materials at the school to come in during regular school hours, sign a log, and make an appointment if they would like to discuss specific items with a teacher or the principal. In response to a request under § 32A, schools are to make available the syllabus and all of the planned instructional materials for the course or program primarily involving human sexual education or human sexuality issues. If parents or others ask to observe classes, the school should handle the request according to its own policy, since § 32A is silent on that issue.

6. How may a parent exempt his or her child from curriculum that primarily involves human sexual education or human sexuality issues?

Parents may exempt their children from curriculum covered by § 32A by written notification to the school principal. No specific form letter is required. The parent should specify the course, class or school assembly from which the child is to be exempted. As long as the course or school program primarily involves human sexual education or human sexuality issues, the exemption is to be granted upon request.

A parent may request an exemption under § 32A from an entire sex education course before it begins. However, since the statute permits parents to exempt their children "from any portion of said curriculum," the school should be prepared to receive and grant exemptions at any point during the school year.

7. What happens if a child is exempted from part or all of a class?

Section 32A states that no child shall be penalized by reason of an exemption from curriculum covered by the statute. The statute does not mandate that the school provide a customized curriculum for the exempted student, simply that the school not penalize the student, as by denying him or her course credit. In order to ensure that all students receive the structured learning time due them, the school should make efforts to accommodate the exempted student in another class, assign an alternative educational project, or provide the student with a directed study period for the duration of the exemption.

8. If disputes arise under § 32, how are they resolved?

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will issue regulations on dispute resolution as required by § 32A. We expect that the regulations will encourage local resolution of any disputes that may arise, as outlined here: A parent who is dissatisfied with an action or decision of the school principal under § 32A (that is, an action or decision concerning notice, access to instructional materials, or exemption for the student), may submit a written request to the superintendent of schools for review of the issue. The superintendent or designee should review the issue and give the parent a timely written decision, preferably within two weeks of the request. The parent who is dissatisfied with the superintendent's decision may submit a written request to the school committee for review of the issue. The school committee should review the issue and give the parent a timely written decision, preferably within four weeks of the request. In a charter school, the board of trustees functions as the school committee in the dispute resolution process. After this local resolution process is followed, a parent who is still dissatisfied may submit a written request to the Commissioner of Education for review of the issue in dispute. In accordance with the regulations to be promulgated in the spring of 1997, the Commissioner will designate an individual or group to review the matter and issue a final decision.

9. Do parents have the right to see curriculum materials for courses other than those covered by § 32A, such as English language arts, history and social science, mathematics, science, and other subjects?

Yes. Public school curriculum materials, including course syllabi and textbooks and other instructional materials, are considered public records under the Public Records Law, General Laws Chapter 4, § 7 (26). Upon oral or written request of a parent or any member of the public, school officials must make these materials available for review.

Many school districts have found that student performance improves when parents are informed about the syllabus and performance standards for each course and grade. We encourage schools to engage parents in their children's learning, by keeping parents informed about the curriculum to be covered in each of their children's courses.

We hope this advisory and the attached sample policy and parent notice are helpful to you in implementing § 32A in your school district or charter school. If you have further questions about § 32A, please contact Margot Abels in Learning Supports and Early Learning (OLSEL) at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, at (781) 338-3000.

Attachment 2

Sample

School Committee Policy: Parental Notification Relative To Sex Education

In accordance with General Laws Chapter 71, Section 32A, the ____________ School Committee has adopted this policy on the rights of parents and guardians of our students in relation to curriculum that primarily involves human sexual education or human sexuality issues.

At the beginning of each school year, all parents/guardians of students in our schools will be notified in writing of the courses and curriculum we offer that primarily involve human sexual education or human sexuality issues. The Superintendent of Schools will determine the administrator(s) responsible for sending the notice(s). Parents/guardians of students who enroll in school after the start of the school year will be given the written notice at the time of enrollment. If the planned curriculum changes during the school year, to the extent practicable, parents/guardians will be notified of this fact in a timely manner before implementation.

Each such notice to parents/guardians will include a brief description of the curriculum covered by this policy, and will inform parents/guardians that they may:

  1. exempt their child from any portion of the curriculum that primarily involves human sexual education or human sexuality issues, without penalty to the student, by sending a letter to the school principal requesting an exemption. Any student who is exempted by request of the parent/guardian under this policy may be given an alternative assignment.
  2. inspect and review program instruction materials for these curricula, which will be made reasonably accessible to parents/guardians and others to the extent practicable. Parents/guardians may arrange with the principal to review the materials at the school, and may also review them at other locations that may be determined by the Superintendent of Schools.

A parent/guardian who is dissatisfied with a decision of the principal concerning notice, access to instructional materials, or exemption for the student under this policy may send a written request to the Superintendent for review of the issue. The Superintendent or designee will review the issue and give the parent/guardian a timely written decision, preferably within two weeks of the request. A parent/guardian who is dissatisfied with the Superintendent's decision may send a written request to the School Committee for review of the issue. The School Committee will review the issue and give the parent/guardian a timely written decision, preferably within four weeks of the request. A parent/guardian who is still dissatisfied after this process may send a written request to the Commissioner of Education for review of the issue in dispute.

The Superintendent of Schools will distribute a copy of this policy to each principal by September 1 of each year.

Policy adopted: [Date]

Attachment 3

Sample Notice To Parents/Guardians

[Date]

Dear Parent/Guardian:

Enclosed is an outline of our school's grade 7 and 8 comprehensive health education curriculum. This program has been developed by our professional staff under the guidance of the community health education advisory council. The overall goal of the course is to continue efforts begun in earlier grades to promote the health and well-being of our students, and to help them make wise and informed decisions during their teen-age years and beyond.

Sex education is part of the health education curriculum in grades 7 and 8, including topics such as puberty; dating; relationships and communication skills; pregnancy; birth control; abortion; homosexuality; prevention of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases; and prevention of sexual abuse. The instructional materials we use for the course include a curriculum package and a video, listed on the enclosed outline. If you would like to review these materials at the school, you are welcome to do so. Please call me to arrange a convenient time.

During the course, students will be able to ask questions, which will be answered factually and in an age appropriate manner. Each student's privacy will be respected, and no one will be put on the spot to ask or answer questions or reveal personal information. Material will be presented in a balanced, factual way that makes clear that people may have strong religious and moral beliefs about issues such as birth control and abortion, and that these beliefs must be respected.

Under Massachusetts law and School Committee policy, you may exempt your child from any portion of the curriculum that primarily involves human sexual education or human sexuality issues. To receive an exemption, simply send me a letter requesting an exemption for your child. No student who is exempted from this portion of the curriculum will be penalized. We may provide an alternative assignment to students who are exempted.

We look forward to working with you to ensure that your child has a positive and educationally enriching experience this school year. If you have any questions about sex education or any other matter concerning your child's education, please call me.

Sincerely,

Principal
[Phone number]
Enclosure: [course outline; list of curriculum materials for sex education]



Last Updated: April 7, 1997
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