Wisconsin Statute § 118.019 encourages – but does not require – all school boards to provide students in grades Kindergarten to 12 with human growth and development instruction.  The purpose is “to promote accurate and comprehensive knowledge in this area and responsible decision making and to support and enhance the efforts of parents to provide moral guidance to their children.”

The contents of school districts’ human growth and development curriculum has become a controversial issue in a number of Wisconsin communities.  Medical professionals, educators, parents, and students are advocating for the human growth and development instruction they believe should be provided in school.  So, what does Wisconsin law require?

Relevant Wisconsin statutes include Wis. Stat. § 115.35, authorizing the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to establish a critical health problems education program that includes specific topics such as sexually transmitted diseases, including acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).  This statute also provides that participation in the human growth and development program is voluntary.

Additionally, Wisconsin Statute § 118.01 identifies educational goals and expectations of public education, and as part of the goal of personal development states that each school board shall provide an instructional program designed to give pupils knowledge of the human body and the means to maintain lifelong health.  Moreover, instruction in physiology and hygiene must include instruction on sexually transmitted diseases and must be offered in every high school.  Wis. Stat. § 118.01(3)(d)2c.  However, no pupil may be required to take instruction in these subjects if their parent(s)/guardian(s) files a written objection.  Moreover, pupils cannot be penalized in any way for not receiving the instruction, but can be required to complete an alternative assignment if the subject is needed for graduation.  Similarly, school districts are required to provide to pupils in elementary schools “knowledge of effective means by which pupils may recognize, avoid, prevent and halt physically or psychologically intrusive or abusive situations which may be harmful to pupils, including child abuse, sexual abuse and child enticement.”  Wis. Stat. § 118.01(2)(d)8.

Finally, Wis. Stat. § 118.019, outlines the requirements of human growth and development instruction:

  1. A school board may provide an instructional program in human growth and development in grades Kindergarten to 12. Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2).  (Emphasis added).  If the school board elects to provide human growth and development instruction, when the school board establishes the curriculum, the school board shall make determinations as to whether and, if so, for what subjects covered in the curriculum the pupils shall be separated by gender.  Id.  (Emphasis added).
  2. If an instructional program is provided, the statutes recommend school districts:

a.  Present medically accurate information to pupils (information that is scientifically-based and published, where appropriate, in peer-reviewed journals and textbooks (Wis. Stat. § 118.019(1m)(a)) and, when age-appropriate (suitable to a particular age group of pupils based on their developing cognitive and emotional capacity and consistent with adolescent development and community standards (Wis. Stat. § 118.019(1m)(b)), addressing various topics: (i) the importance of communication about sexuality between the pupil and pupil’s parent(s)/guardian(s); (ii) reproductive and sexual anatomy and physiology; (iii) the benefits of and reasons for abstaining from sexual activity; (iv) methods for developing healthy life skills; (v) how alcohol and drug use affect responsible decision making; (vi) the impact of media and one’s peers on thoughts, feelings and behaviors related to sexuality; (vii) adoption resources, prenatal care and postnatal supports; and (viii) the nature and treatment of sexually transmitted infections.  Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2)(a).

b.  Address self-esteem and personal responsibility, positive interpersonal skills and healthy relationships. Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2)(c).

c.  Identify counseling, medical and legal resources for survivors of sexual abuse and assault, including resources for escaping violent relationships. Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2)(d).

d.  Address the positive connection between marriage and parenting. Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2)(e).

e.  Present information about avoiding stereotyping and bullying. Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2)(f).

3. The instructional program shall use instructional methods and materials that do not discriminate against a pupil based upon the pupil’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or ethnic or cultural background or against sexually active pupils or children with disabilities. Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2d). 

4. A school board may approve an instructional program that includes instruction on abstinence from sexual activity or that is abstinence-centered. Id.

5. If a school board provides human growth and development instruction, the school board shall ensure the following is provided, when age appropriate, in the same course and during the same year:

a.  Presents abstinence from sexual activity as the preferred choice of behavior for unmarried pupils. Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2m)(c).

b.  Emphasize that abstinence from sexual activity before marriage is the only reliable way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2m)(d).

c.  Provide instruction in parental responsibility and the socio-economic benefits of marriage for adults and their children. Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2m)(e).

d.  Explain pregnancy, prenatal development and childbirth. Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2m)(f).

e.  Explain the criminal penalties for engaging in sexual activities involving a child. Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2m)(g).

f.  Explain the sex offender registration requirements. Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2m)(h).

g.  Provide medically accurate information about the human papilloma virus and the human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2m)(i).

h.  Explain the process under the law under which a parent of a newborn child may relinquish custody of a child to a law enforcement officer, emergency medical services practitioner or hospital staff member. Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2m)(j).

6. A school board is not prohibited from providing human growth and development instruction, in whole or in part, to pupils while the pupils are separated from members of the opposite sex. Wis. Stat. § 118.019(2s).

7. If human growth and development instruction is provided, each school board is required annually to provide the parent(s)/guardian(s) of each pupil enrolled in the school district with an outline of: (a) the human growth and development curriculum used in the pupil’s grade level; (b) information regarding how the parent(s)/guardian(s) may inspect the complete curriculum and instructional materials; (c) an explanation of the right to opt-out of instruction; and (d) a statement that pupils exempted from instruction will still receive certain instruction (See the reference above to Wis. Stat. §§ 118.01(2)(d)2c. (unless exempted) and 118.01(2)(d)8.).  The school board must make the complete human growth and development curriculum and all instructional materials available to a parent(s)/guardian(s), upon request (prior to use).  Wis. Stat. § 118.019(3).  (Emphasis added).

8. Students may opt-out. The state statutes do not require parents to give permission for human growth and development instruction; however, Wis. Stat. § 118.019(4) allows a parent(s)/guardian(s) to exempt their child from instruction in human growth and development with a written request to the teacher or principal.

9. If a school district offers human growth and development instruction, the school board must appoint an ad hoc advisory committee whose role is to advise the school board on the design and implementation of the human growth and development curriculum and to review the curriculum. Wis. Stat. 118.019(5).  (Emphasis added).  Parents, teachers, school administrators, pupils, health care professionals, members of the clergy and other residents of the school district shall comprise the committee with no one category of member constituting more than one-fifth of the membership (except for parents).  Id.  Similarly, no more than one-quarter of the members of the committee may be made up of employees of the school district.  Id.  When this committee meets, the committee must adhere to the requirements of Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law, including providing proper public notice of each meeting at least 24 hours in advance.  State ex rel. Krueger v. Appleton Area School District Board of Education, 2017 WI 70 (Wis. 2017).   Although not clear from the statutory language, the description of the committee as “ad hoc” (as opposed to a standing committee) suggests that the committee need only be constituted and meet when a school district is either (a) designing and implementing a curriculum in human growth and development, or (b) reviewing the curriculum. Further, the committee is merely advisory with the Board retaining final authority.

In short, Wisconsin school districts are encouraged to provide students in grades Kindergarten to 12 with human growth and development instruction.  If a Wisconsin school district elects to provide human growth and development instruction, the school district must adhere to several requirements:

  1. Provide annual notice to parent(s)/guardian(s) of each pupil enrolled in the school district of the curriculum and the right to opt-out.
  2. Refrain from discriminating against a pupil based upon the pupil’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or ethnic or cultural background or against sexually active pupils or children with disabilities.
  3. Appoint an ad hoc advisory committee whose role is to advise the school board on the design and implementation of the human growth and development curriculum and to review the curriculum.

For questions regarding this article, please contact the author,

or your Renning, Lewis & Lacy attorney.

Tony J. Renning

Tony J. Renning

trenning@law-rll.com | (833) 654-1177