A vitriolic debate about sex education rocked an Arizona State Board of Education meeting in June, when the board weighed changing several state rules that guide how public schools address sex education instruction.
Nearly 60 members of the public shared their beliefs about sex ed with the board. Many comments were tinged with alarm over what happens when lessons about sex occur in the classroom.
The board decided to ignore the proposals and leave its rules unchanged.
Many speakers told the board they believe sex education should be up to parents and left out of school.
In Arizona, sex education is optional. Parents, according to state law, have the right to opt their child into the sex ed program if their district or charter school offers one, but the instruction is not required.
Who decides what sex ed ends up in the classroom?
One fear among the parents who spoke was that the state, in changing sex education rules, was dictating what would be taught in the classroom.
A Facebook post from the group Purple for Parents, a group that sprung up against #RedForEd, encouraged its members to attend the meeting to “stop this ridiculous sex ed curriculum.”
That’s not accurate.
A child’s school district or charter school sets the sex ed curriculum, which includes the actual content being taught (think: books, worksheets, slideshows).
The state board’s rules very broadly govern what can and can’t be included in the curriculum set by school districts.
What’s included in the rules?
Arizona’s rules require that educators stress abstinence-only education. The rules do not mandate that schools teach about contraception or that sex education be medically accurate.
Rules governing how sex ed lessons should be developed state:
- Parents must give permission in writing to allow students to receive sex education lessons.
- Sex ed can’t take up a whole class day or stretch across a whole school year. Sex ed lessons can take up one class period of the school day during an eighth of the school year for grades K-4 and one class period during a fourth of the school year for grades 5-8.
- District school boards, when developing sex education programs, must include an advisory committee made up of members of the community who are representative of the district’s racial and ethnic makeup.
- District school boards must hold and publicize two public hearings for input on the sex education lessons they develop. Once the lessons are approved, they must keep them available for the public to view on request.
- Sex ed lessons must be taught to boys and girls separately.
- Lessons can’t be graded and they can’t include homework.
- Sex ed lessons also can’t include exams or surveys that question the student’s or parents’ personal beliefs about sex, values or religion.
Rules governing what sex ed lessons should and shouldn’t have include:
- Sex education lessons should be age-appropriate, recognize the needs of students with disabilities, meet the district’s needs, recognize the local community’s needs, and, according to the State Board rule, “shall not include the teaching of abnormal, deviate, or unusual sex acts and practices.” In June, the board considered a proposal to remove the latter provision, but the attempt failed.
- Instruction should emphasize that the students control their own personal behavior and they should base their actions on reasoning, self-discipline, self-control, sense of responsibility and ethics.
- Instruction should include how to say “no” to unwanted sexual advances and resist peer pressure.
- Instruction should emphasize that abstaining from sex is the only method for avoiding pregnancy that is 100% effective.
- Instruction should stress that “sexually transmitted diseases have severe consequences.”
- Lessons should include a discussion of emotional and psychological repercussions of having sex at a young age.
- Lessons should advise that parenting comes with financial responsibilities.
What do schools teach?
It depends on the school district or charter school.
Lessons typically include more sophisticated ideas as children get older. Fourth-graders, for example, learn basic anatomy and puberty lessons. Eighth-graders learn the basics of conception as well as the “dos and don’ts of internet safety.”
Cave Creek Unified recently updated its sex education curriculum for the first time in 17 years, to modernize antiquated lessons that didn’t fully include technology.
Additions to Cave Creek’s curriculum in 2019 included:
- Learning in sixth grade the anatomically correct names and functions of reproductive organs.
- Learning in sixth grade about how the opposite sex goes through puberty.
- Learning the terms heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual in sixth grade, originally a seventh-grade lesson.
- Learning in seventh grade about how media influences students’ decision-making.
- Defining in seventh grade anal, oral and vaginal sex.
Catalina Foothills School District in Tucson follows a similar timeline from younger to older grades in its human growth and development curriculum, according to an online resource. The program includes lessons in seven different areas:
- Body care and concern. Includes instruction on basic hygiene. In fourth grade, that means how to use deodorant and lessons about body hair. In sixth grade, body care lessons include the use of menstrual products and defining toxic shock syndrome.
- Anatomy and physiology. Fourth-graders learn the basic parts of the male and female reproductive system. Ninth-graders consider abstinence and contraception.
- Disease. Sixth-graders learn that sexually transmitted diseases exist and can cause illness. They also learn that abstaining from sex prevents STDs. Eighth-graders will recognize the different STDs.
- Media. Fifth-graders learn that media has influence on a person’s self-image. Seventh-graders look at how media and peer pressure influence personal decision-making.
- Interpersonal. Sixth-graders learn how friends can influence their behavior and decision-making. Ninth-graders practice refusal skills.
- Legal and ethical. Sixth-graders learn about inappropriate touch, sexual harassment and their legal rights. Ninth-graders learn about dating violence, sexual manipulation, sexual harassment, molestation, date rape and pejorative language.
- Resources and services. Fourth-graders learn that their school counselors, teachers and family members can help with personal concerns and health issues. Eighth-graders learn how to ask trusted adults questions about health issues.
Parents and legislators protest the changing of sex education guidelines in public schools on June 24, 2019, at the Department of Education.
Johanna Huckeba, Arizona Republic
Will my child’s school contact me?
Yes. If your school offers sex education and plans to hold a course sometime during the school year, under state law, officials first must get written permission from you for your child to attend.
If you’re hesitant about signing your child up, you have the right to go to the school in person and check out the school’s curriculum.
How do Arizona’s sex ed laws and rules compare with other states?
About half U.S. states, including California, Florida, Maryland and Louisiana, mandate sex education, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arizona is not one of them.
Arizona also is not one of 13 states that require that instruction be medically accurate.
Arizona is one of 26 states that require that information taught is age-appropriate, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
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