General Articles

Amid Victory in Wisconsin, Local DA Wrongly Threatens Legal Prosecution for Teaching Comprehensive Sex Education

In retaliation to the passage of the Wisconsin Healthy Youth Act in February 2010, Juneau County District Attorney Scott Southworth sent a letter to five local school districts in late March urging them to suspend all human sexuality instruction due to risk of criminal punishment. The Healthy Youth Act amends the state’s sex education policy to require school districts that choose to teach human growth and development to provide medically accurate and age-appropriate information that addresses, among other topics, the “health benefits, side effects, and proper use of contraceptives and barrier methods” used to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.[i] According to District Attorney Southworth’s letter, the new sex education statute “encourages . . . the delinquent act of a child” and “promotes the sexualization—and sexual assault—of our children.”[ii]
The sex education statute allows school districts to provide instruction in human growth and development in grades kindergarten through 12 and offers some of the most comprehensive education requirements for human sexuality instruction out of any state in the country. Under the new law, instruction must be age appropriate; address both abstinence and contraception; address reproductive and sexual anatomy and physiology, including puberty; and aid in developing skills for making “responsible decisions about sexuality and sexual behavior” throughout the lifespan.[iii] Additional tenets of the law state that parents have the right to opt their child out of instruction. School districts that choose not to provide sexuality education must issue a letter to parents from their school boards stating so. Furthermore, all human growth and development education must use “instructional methods and materials that do not promote bias against pupils of any race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnic or cultural background or against sexually active pupils or children with disabilities.”[iv]
The letter from the Juneau County District Attorney warns school administrators that teaching students about contraceptive use encourages minors to “engage in sexual behavior, whether as a victim or an offender.” The letter notes, “It is akin to teaching children about alcohol use, then instructing them on how to make a mixed alcoholic drink.”[v] Southworth argues that receiving such information will propel minors to engage in sex—such as adolescents under the age of 18 engaging in sexual activity with young adults (a criminal offense in Wisconsin) or minors engaging in sex with other minors. His letter further states that teaching instruction on contraceptive use would place teachers at risk for criminal liability under the statute that prohibits contributing to the delinquency of a child. Under his proposed scenario, “if a teacher instructs any student aged 16 or younger how to utilize contraceptives under circumstances where the teacher knows the child is engaging in sexual activity with another child—or even where the ‘natural and probable consequences’ of the teacher’s instruction is to cause that child to engage in sexual intercourse with a child—that teacher can be charged.” Taking it a step further, Southworth also insists that human growth and development instruction that teaches proper contraceptive use “turns objective instruction into implicit encouragement and advocacy,” which may also lead to criminal charges for teachers.[vi]
Included in the letter is the assertion that the law “provides access to our children by the contraceptive industry” due to a provision in the policy that allows volunteer health care providers to provide sex education instruction in areas concerning human sexuality and contraception. The letter states specifically that the provision allows groups like Planned Parenthood to “market sexually-oriented [sic] products to our children.” Furthermore, the letter warns that the law’s mandate for instructional inclusion of all pupils would cause schools to provide instruction on both homosexuality and heterosexuality, which would also likely include “discussions on transgender and transsexual individuals.” Most egregiously of all, Southworth asserts that the amended policy converts objective human growth and development education “into a radical program that sexualizes our children as early as kindergarten” that will in turn “lead to more sexual assaults.”[vii] In truth, the law states that instruction must teach students the “skills needed . . . to refrain from making inappropriate verbal, physical, and sexual advances and how to recognize, rebuff, and report any unwanted or inappropriate verbal, physical, and sexual behaviors.”[viii]
State policy makers and proponents of the new law have strongly criticized District Attorney Southworth’s letter in response to the passage of the Healthy Youth Act. In an article published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin State Representative Kelda Helen Roys (D-Madison), who contributed to writing the legislation, commented that Southworth’s threats of criminal charges for following the law were laughable. “This guy is not a credible legal source on this matter, I’m sorry to say,” Roys stated. “His purpose is to intimidate and create enough panic in the minds of school administrators that they’ll turn their backs on young people and their families.”[ix]
The executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, Christopher Ahmuty, also critiqued Southworth’s antics: “He apparently believes that good teaching will contribute to the delinquency of a minor. The Healthy Youth Act on the other hand recognizes that, despite the best advice of teachers and parents, some teenagers will still have sex and it is best that they have accurate information, rather than unreliable information from peers or the internet.”[x]
Governor Jim Doyle, who signed the Healthy Youth Act into law, also remarked on Southworth’s letter. “It’s really an unusual argument to make. ‘Follow the law and I’ll prosecute you,’” Doyle commented to reporters.[xi]
On the local level, individual teachers and school administrators have commented that they are undeterred by Southworth’s fear mongering. Oshkosh West High School’s principal Pete Cernohous stated that he just laughed at the news of Southworth’s letter. “I just don’t see the merit of it at this point,” he explained.[xii] Others at the local level also commented that the issue wasn’t one to be addressed within the schools and that the district attorney’s warning unfairly victimized schools and teachers. “The reality is it’s a state law now,” said Shelly Muza, director of curriculum and instruction for Oshkosh schools. “We could also be held [liable] if we don’t follow state law.” Winnebago County District Attorney Christian Gossett stated that he would not press criminal charges against any teacher who teaches about contraceptives and commented that issues with the state law should be brought to the state legislature.[xiii]
Advocates are advising school administrators to rely on the Wisconsin State Department of Public Education for assistance with implementing the new standards. The department has recently developed an implementation tool kit for schools. “School districts in Juneau County will be wiser if they listen to the guidance coming from the Department of Public Instruction on the new law and to their own teachers, principals, advisory councils and school attorneys,” Ahmuty stated.[xiv]
“SIECUS strongly believes that Mr. Southworth is guilty of putting the best interests of young people and his state at risk for his own political grandstanding, while putting Wisconsin’s hard working teachers at fear for their jobs,” said Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) President and CEO Joe DiNorcia in a statement released on April 8, 2010. “We call on all Wisconsin policy makers, as well as the state’s district attorney’s office, to make it clear that attempts like Mr. Southworth’s to derail the laws of Wisconsin will not be tolerated. Sex education and the future of Wisconsin’s young people are serious issues that deserve serious discussion, not threats and fear mongering from a county DA with delusions of grandeur.” 

[i] 2009 Wisconsin Act 134, § 118.019(2)(a)6, accessed 19 April 2010, <>.

[ii] Letter from District Attorney Scott Harold Southworth to Juneau County School Board Members and District Administrators, 24 March 2010, accessed 19 April 2010, <>.

[iii] 2009 Wisconsin Act 134, § 118.019(2)(a)(4).

[iv] 2009 Wisconsin Act 134, § 118.019(2)(b).

[v] Letter from District Attorney Scott Harold Southworth.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] 2009 Wisconsin Act 134, § 118.019(2)(a)(4).

[ix] Patrick Marley, “Juneau County DA Warns Districts on Sex Ed Law,” Journal Sentinel, 6 April 2010, accessed 19 April 2010, <>.

[x] “Schools Should Get Better Advice in Juneau County and Statewide, Says ACLU of WI,” ACLU of Wisconsin, 7 April 2010, accessed 19 April 2010, <>.

[xi] Mary Spicuzza, “Politics Blog: Gov. Doyle: Teachers Won’t Face Prosecution over Sex Ed Classes,” Wisconsin State Journal, 8 April 2010, accessed 19 April 2010,

[xii] Adam Rodewald, “District Not Worried about Sex Ed Warning,” Oshkosh Northwestern, 19 April 2010, accessed 19 April 2010, <>.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] “Schools Should Get Better Advice in Juneau County and Statewide, Says ACLU of WI.”