General Articles

Merrill, Wisconsin School District Follows State Law on Sex Education

The Wisconsin Healthy Youth Act, Assembly Bill 458, was signed into law on February 24, 2010. Since then, much time and effort has been put forth in Merrill, Wisconsin, to update the curriculum for the local school district’s human growth and development courses. The Merrill School District developed a human growth and development advisory committee made up of administrators, parents, teachers, and a member of the clergy to guide the district’s curriculum update in accordance with the new law, which requires schools that teach sexuality education to provide information on delaying sexual activity, birth control, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), among other topics.[1]
While the advisory committee failed to reach consensus and provide a recommendation, on September 8, 2010, the school board moved forward and voted to adopt a comprehensive human growth and development curriculum for use in district schools. Consequently, the board made the decision to disband the committee and will move forward to appoint a new human growth and development committee to continue the process.[2]
The Healthy Youth Actrequires Wisconsin schools that choose to teach sexuality education to provide students with medically accurate and age-appropriate information about ways to prevent unintended pregnancy and STDs by teaching the benefits of abstinence and the benefits and proper use of birth control and barrier methods. They must also teach youth about the life and relationship skills needed in order to negotiate sexual encounters, to say no to sex, to insist on the use of contraception, and to communicate with parents and other trusted adults about these issues.[3] The law also requires that students be informed about Wisconsin’s sexual assault reporting laws.
During a Merrill human growth and development committee meeting, community members were given the opportunity to express their views on updating the curriculum. Former Merrill School Board member Joe Fink stated his opposition to revising the curriculum to meet the standards of the new law: “I don’t like the law; I think the law is wrong. I think parents know best . . . this is about parents’ rights.” Fink asked the advisory committee to discontinue the human growth and development classes altogether for a year if it “can’t stick with its abstinence-only lessons.”[4] Another community member, Susan Hass, who has worked with young people who have had children out of wedlock, spoke in favor of updating the curriculum by noting that “you can never have too much education.”[5] The wide variety of opinions of the human growth and development committee members made consensus impossible, so no curriculum recommendation was given to the school board.
After receiving no recommendation from the advisory committee and hearing nearly three hours of testimony at a board meeting, the Merrill School Board voted in favor of updating the human growth and development curriculum and said that eliminating all sex education “would not be fair to students and parents who want the information taught, and that those opposed to the subject can opt out of the classes.”[6]
In the scope of sexuality education policies, Wisconsin’s new law reflects not only the evidence of what works but also national trends. Research and polling show that comprehensive sexuality education is a mainstream American value. A vast majority of Americans support comprehensive sexuality education—medically accurate, age-appropriate education that includes information about both abstinence and contraception—and believe young people should be given information about how to protect themselves from unintended pregnancies and STDs.[7]
The executive director of Wisconsin’s Family Planning Health Services (FPHS), Lon Newman, was appreciative of the time taken in Merrill to allow the full process to unfold before the board reformed the committee and affirmed its intent to propose a curriculum that complies with Wisconsin law. “It is important to let each person speak and be heard, and to not let decision-makers get pulled off track and lose focus by having political or moral discussions,” Newman explained. “By keeping discussions under the scope of the standards that the law requires—medical accuracy and age appropriateness, the decision made by a school board is simple.” The FPHS and Mr. Newman anticipate that this is not the only sexuality education curricula that may be updated in the state, but that we “can expect to use what has happened in Merrill as an excellent example of what will be repeated in districts throughout Wisconsin.”[8]


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[1] Keith Uhlig, “Merrill Sex Ed Debate Grows,” Wausau Daily Herald, 22 August 2010, accessed 16 September 2010, <>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, Fact Sheet: Healthy Youth Act, accessed 16 September 2010, <>.

[4] Uhlig, “Merrill Sex Ed Debate Grows.”

[5] Keith Uhlig, “Merrill School Board Approves Sex Ed Classes,” Wausau Daily Herald, 9 September 2010, accessed 16 September 2010, <>.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sex Education in America: General Public/Parents Survey (Washington, DC: National Public Radio/ Kaiser Family Foundation/Kennedy School of Government, 2004), 5.

[8] Lon Newman, email correspondence with the author, 16 September 2010.