Why this mom is inspired to update Idaho's sex education laws
Hannah Gayle’s twin boys, Caiden and Beau, are tiny nuclear power plants. Hannah loves them as only the patient mother of 4-year-olds can. But she would love to have waited to have them until she was beyond age 17, beyond high school, beyond her own childhood, ready to be a parent and an adult.
Nobody would blame Hannah if she kept her regrets to herself, just kept working as a nursing assistant at St. Luke’s and attending Boise State University and raising her boys.
Instead, Hannah decided to share her experience as a single teen mother to help other kids avoid the mistakes she made.
As part of a Boise State class project, she talked to girls at the Marian Pritchett School for pregnant and parenting teens about graduating from high school and going to college. She researched what it would take to help other girls in Idaho not end up pregnant in high school. Late one night, as she finished her assignment, she stumbled across Idaho’s sex education law.
It hadn’t changed since it was written in 1970. It says sex ed “should supplement the work in the home and the church” and emphasizes controlling “the power of the sex drive” with “self-discipline.” Its four paragraphs conclude: “The program should focus upon helping youth acquire a background of ideals and standards and attitudes which will be of value to him now and later when he chooses a mate and establishes his own family.”
“She wasn’t expecting to find that,” says her professor, Sara Fry. “She thought, ‘There must be something I missed.’ ”
But that was the law, no mistake. So with Fry’s assistance, Hannah decided to extend her project to the Idaho Legislature. She wants the law to mesh with the 2017 health education content standards that offer high school students medically accurate information to “assess the consequences of sexual activity (unplanned pregnancy, STDs, emotional distress).”
“I just want the information to be available and accurate,” says Hannah, now 21, “and for students to have that information if they and their parents want them to.”
Her first outing as a citizen-lobbyist didn’t succeed. She was quizzed by respectful but skeptical members of the House Education Committee; her motives were questioned by groups that feared changing the law would end up advocating premarital sex or masturbation, or reduce the role of faith and family. But the experience also left Hannah determined to work with critics to write a better bill to bring to the 2019 Legislature.
House Education Chairwoman Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, who is working with Hannah, praises her poise and perseverance.
“For Hannah to even come to the Legislature, to think that’s where she could get some help, to me says that she had a lot of courage and she was very sure there was a path forward,” said VanOrden.
MOVING A CLASS PROJECT INTO THE REAL WORLD
It was in Fry’s University Foundations class on ethics and citizenship that Hannah started the community engagement project that has her talking with Marian Pritchett students and researching how to reduce teen pregnancies.
When Fry read Hannah’s final paper in December 2016, she saw in it a blueprint for action. With Hannah’s permission, she shared it with people more familiar with the legislative process who encouraged them to translate Hannah’s report about the law into law.
“Collaborating with Hannah is a social studies teacher’s dream come true,” said Fry, a former middle school teacher who now instructs future social studies teachers. “For a student to take a civic engagement requirement to such an amazing level is just what I have in mind.”
Sara and Hannah were legislative neophytes, so they made several trips to the Capitol in 2017 to get a sense of how to navigate the Legislature. They liked VanOrden, and thought her role as the chairwoman of the Education Committee made her their best potential ally. They asked for a meeting, and it went well enough that VanOrden had her intern help start drafting legislation.
“When we did the bill,” said VanOrden, “I just asked Hannah: ‘What would you like the bill to look like, from the life experiences you’ve gone through?’ ”
They met through 2017, and VanOrden asked the Legislature’s bill writers to shape their draft into a bill to offer in the 2018 session.
THE ROUGH-AND-TUMBLE OF POLITICS
VanOrden invited Hannah to present the bill to the Education Committee on Feb. 16.
Hannah assumed that, like VanOrden, people would quickly agree that the outdated statute needs updating. She was unprepared for the opposition, which she felt personally at first. Now she realizes that the critical comments and press coverage were part of the rough and tumble of the process.
“I’m not trying to teach kids to masturbate. I’m trying to improve the well-being of Idaho,” Hannah says. “And I’m a really good person, contrary to what some people have thought.”
VanOrden agreed with her committee that the bill needed more work and essentially withdrew it from consideration.
VanOrden, now running for re-election, is taking heat in her East Idaho district for having worked with a “liberal” professor and a “Boise State consortium.” Despite the pushback, VanOrden says, she has no regrets in taking on the sensitive topic of sex or working with Sara and Hannah.
“People who are criticizing Hannah haven’t met Hannah,” said VanOrden. “If people met Hannah, they could see how smart she is, and just being around her you can tell she doesn’t have an agenda. Her only agenda is to help other girls not find themselves in the situation she was in.”
Today Hannah and Sara are gathering more data and hoping to rewrite the bill to make needed changes but also assure its critics that it respects the role of families and faiths.
But they’ve also realized they don’t need to pass a bill to start helping young parents. Just 1.5 percent of teen moms get their college degrees by age 25. Their research revealed that young moms need support beginning before high school ends and through the summer before college. They are finding others who want to help them create support systems and mentoring programs for young parents, such as Marian Pritchett’s 10 graduating seniors who plan to attend the College of Western Idaho or Boise State this fall.
“I kind of find it amazing how many things are unfolding and opening up for us,” marvels Fry.
LIFE’S CURVE BALLS
Hannah wants people to understand that teen pregnancy is not something girls plan on. Hannah was a serious student and athlete, a long-jumper and triple-jumper, getting good grades in AP classes and taking birth-control pills.
“I was the person that seemed least likely to get pregnant in high school,” she said, “yet I still did.”
She had a great mother who supported her financially and helped her stay in school, then go to college. Even so, it’s been a struggle, and she knows many young moms don’t have the same advantages.
Today, Hannah has changed her major and wants to be a science or math teacher. She has a long-term boyfriend, and a supportive network of family and work and school friends. Just last week, Hannah found out she is due, in November, to have another set of twins.
Work, school, parenting, pregnancy — Hannah has a full plate even without the duties of part-time lobbyist. Nonetheless, she promises: “I will try every year until it passes.”
Idaho’s 1970 sex education law
Family life and sex education: The legislature of the state of Idaho believes that the primary responsibility for family life and sex education, including moral responsibility, rests upon the home and the church and the schools can only complement and supplement those standards which are established in the family. The decision as to whether or not any program in family life and sex education is to be introduced in the schools is a matter for determination at the local district level by the local school board of duly selected representatives of the people of the community. If such program is adopted, the legislature believes that:
a. Major emphasis in such a program should be to assist the home in giving them the knowledge and appreciation of the important place the family home holds in the social system of our culture, its place in the family and the responsibility which will be there much later when they establish their own families.
b. The program should supplement the work in the home and the church in giving youth the scientific, physiological information for understanding sex and its relation to the miracle of life, including knowledge of the power of the sex drive and the necessity of controlling that drive by self-discipline.
c. The program should focus upon helping youth acquire a background of ideals and standards and attitudes which will be of value to him now and later when he chooses a mate and establishes his own family.