Stricter state laws are chipping away at sex education in K-12 schools

Twelve state or county agencies are parting with federal grants worth tens and thousands of dollars. The money was meant to monitor teenage sexual behavior and to try to reduce rates of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease.

The withdrawals are a reflection of a change in state laws that has further complicated and polarized sex education for K-12 students. Some Republican-led legislatures have tightened up the regulations on what and when students can learn about their own bodies. The new laws are a part of an overall push to strengthen “parents’ rights” and remove LGBTQ+ content in the classroom. These themes have been a major focus during the GOP presidential campaign.

Experts worry that students will not learn enough about adolescence or safe sexual activities, as well as relationship violence. These topics are particularly important, they say, since the number of sexually transmitted illnesses has increased after the pandemic, and abortion access is becoming increasingly restricted.

Anne-Marie Amies Oelschlager is a pediatric and teenage gynecologist working at Seattle Children’s Hospital. She said that a trusted, trained adult can help young people get the right information, as opposed to other sources, such as social media.

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She said: “When we stop discussing these issues or… try to sweep them under the carpet, we increase risk.”

A government survey from 2021 showed that fewer teens were sexually active. However, federal data of the same year indicated that teens and young adults accounted for half of those with STDs. The language used to describe sex has changed for the younger generations.

In Indiana, the legislature banned teaching sexual reproduction and intercourse or human sexuality to children before the fifth grade. Kentucky prohibits teachers from teaching sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, or reproduction before the sixth grade. Parents must also consent to older students. Some states allow parents to opt-in to instruction rather than opting-out.

State officials in Florida must approve materials for all grades that deal with sexual health, reproductive health and sexually transmitted diseases. The state agency sent a letter indicating that the curriculum would be reviewed by the end September.

Alison Macklin is the director of policy, advocacy and SIECUS, a progressive sex-education organization. She said that advocates for comprehensive sex-education say that the restrictions in early educational may prevent children from getting age appropriate foundational knowledge they can build upon each year.

She said, “You would never teach a first-grader a lesson in trigonometry.” “But first graders need to learn the basics to prepare them for high school.”

Macklin said, “Sex Education is the same as other education,” suggesting that young people will not be prepared for puberty without learning “fundamental things such as correct terminology for different body parts.”

For girls, puberty begins between 8 and 13 years of age. It usually occurs two years later in boys. In Kentucky, for instance, the education agency of the state advised schools to eliminate lessons in fifth grade on puberty, and other reproductive organs.

David Walls said that sex education was not necessary in the elementary schools.

He said that many parents do not agree with what sex education advocates consider age appropriate, especially when it comes to gender identification and the idea that “biological sex” is not an invariable characteristic.

Walls explained that the law “creates a baseline level of protection” for parents, allowing them to review curriculums and decide if they want their children to take part.

Federal guidelines are available for the development of evidence-based, age-appropriate sexual education curricula. However, state laws and local implementation vary.

According to the Guttmacher Institute’s tracking, an abortion-rights research group, 28 states require a standardized sex education program, while 35 states mandate HIV education. The majority of states require that any instruction regarding sex, disease prevention or abstinence include abstinence. Most states also allow parents to opt-out.

Many states have reduced sex education while others have codified inclusive and comprehensive standards. Massachusetts, for instance, announced recently new guidelines on sexual health education, which had last been updated in 1999.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have awarded millions of dollars for programs that are designed to, among other things, track teen behavior and educate abstinence and birth control with the goal of creating a safe environment and preventing diseases and pregnancy.

Idaho’s Division of Public Health announced that it will no longer administer the HHS grant to personal responsibility education programs (preP) as of July 1, after lawmakers failed to approve the expenditure during the legislative sessions.

New Hampshire withdrawn from PREP funding because a five member Republican-led council, which approves contracts, repeatedly blocked funding for 2022. PREP funding does not disappear just because a state rejects it. Instead, it can go directly to the local organization, as it has been done in New Hampshire.

The Division of Adolescent and School Health of the CDC provides a different grant for a biennial survey of youth. Six states have ceased the agreement for the survey since March 2022: Alabama, Colorado Florida Idaho Iowa South Carolina. Some of these states have also passed new laws that restrict the ability of schools to administer surveys.

Four Florida counties, including parts of the metro areas of Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville, as well as Miami, also withdrawn from a CDC grant that was intended to expand student health education and resources.

Kathleen Ethier is the director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the CDC. She said that the CDC “will always promote the best science available.” The CDC said that it was committed to gathering data on youth health issues and recommending programs that are evidence-based.

Ethier noted that there is always “a disconnect” between the recommendations of their organization and the policies of state and local governments, but she is more focused on “the whole school environment” than any particular health class.

Ethier said, “I am concerned any time educators do not feel confident in their ability to answer thoughtfully the questions of young people.”

Teen Health Mississippi is a non-profit organization that offers parents and teens supplementary programs and trains educators.

Around a quarter (25%) of the counties in the state work with the nonprofit organization and the health agency to implement a “abstinence plus” program. This is an alternative option for schools to teach contraception, as well as the abstinence requirement that has been made permanent.

Hope Crenshaw is the director of the organization.