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School districts in Texas are now required to teach students about dating violence, family violence, child abuse and sex trafficking after a new law went into effect in early December.
But advocates are concerned that a last-minute change to the law’s language means the children who need the information the most, will be the least likely to get it.
In June, Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed the original version of the bill over concerns that it didn’t allow parental involvement. During the second special session, legislators passed a revamped version of the law that included Abbott’s input.
Parents are now required to sign a permission slip for their students to be educated on these subjects, raising concerns that children who may be experiencing abuse at the hands of a parent will be excluded from receiving information that could help them.
State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, helped craft both versions of the bill. He said he thought a lot about the impact this new provision might have.
“But the reality is that I can't pass the bill without having that opt-in,” he said. “And so I think the greater good is served by passing the compromise bill with the governor to make sure we touch as many lives as possible.”
From all-in to opt-in
The law, known as the “Christine Blubaugh Act”, is named after a 16-year-old who was killed by her ex-boyfriend in Grand Prairie, Texas in 2000. The original legislation, which didn’t require parental permission, had bipartisan support and passed the Senate on a 29-2 vote. The bill’s sponsors said they were shocked when the governor vetoed it.
“At least when Governor [Rick] Perry had objections about things, his legislative staff would work with your team to deal with the objection,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas. “But that doesn't seem to be the same course of action as Governor Abbott.”
In a statement to The Texas Tribune, a spokesperson for Abbott said the governor said he cares deeply for the rights of parents, as well as the safety of children.
"There were good intentions in [the original bill] but the bill failed to recognize the right of parents to opt their children out of the instruction," said press secretary Renae Eze. "Having been signed into law by the Governor, middle school and high school students will now receive instruction on the prevention of child abuse, family violence, and dating violence, while ensuring the rights of parents in their child’s education.”
West and Anchía worked with Abbott’s office to draft the new legislation, which says districts must obtain written consent from a student’s parent before offering them education on dating violence, family violence and child abuse.
As a parent of two high school students himself, Anchía said he’s encouraging all parents to sign the paperwork to enroll their students in the course.
“As a parent, I'm not trained in these interventions or these tools,” he said. “So I really want somebody who understands them, who knows what they're doing, to be able to communicate this information to my child.”
Advocates encourage parents to enroll
Advocates say there’s been an increased focus in recent years on helping students identify and prevent family and dating violence — but there’s still more work to be done.
Roy Rios, prevention manager for the Texas Council on Family Violence, said there are plenty of evidence-based, age-appropriate curriculums on family and dating violence being used in school districts around the state.
These classes teach students about healthy relationships, give them a vocabulary to understand abuse and point them to resources and places to seek help. But Rios said a lot of the training is about helping students to embrace their leadership skills to be a good bystander and member of the community.
“They take those lessons with them into college, or however they spend their adult lives,” said Rios. “What we're seeing through the research is that these types of programs equip young people on how to avoid victimization, and how not to perpetrate violence in their lives.”
He hopes the new law will give every student access to this education. But he and other advocates worry that requiring parents to sign up will diminish the reach.
Some students may simply fall through the cracks, especially those who don’t live with their parents or forget to get the paperwork signed. Some parents may not want their children educated about child abuse, particularly if they are the perpetrators of the abuse. Others may not want to admit that their child could fall victim to dating violence.
“It’s not great to hear that we as adults are often not privy to all of the dynamics of a young person's life,” said Rios. “But what we do know is that young people talk to each other. Often it takes the support of peer networks to understand how to intervene, how to offer support to a young survivor.”
Heather Bellino is the executive director at the Texas Advocacy Project, a domestic violence legal advocacy group. She is also a parent, and said she appreciates the need for parental input in what their children are taught.
“Being a parent, that's your heart walking around outside of your body and you want to protect it in every way you can,” she said. “But sometimes protecting in every way you can means stretching a little bit outside of your comfort zone.”
She’s imploring parents to get educated on these issues themselves — and sign their students up for the curriculum.
“Opting out of this training,” she said, “won’t stop your child from being abused.”