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Sex Education in Public Schools

All states offer some degree of sex education to public school children. Public health authorities and school boards emphasize the importance of sex education. They stress the importance of delivering accurate information about reproductive health. They also emphasize instruction on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Finally, these programs teach students about maintaining healthy relationships with others and themselves.

These programs are constantly evolving. In recent years, there has been more emphasis on inclusive instruction. This means addressing LGBTQ+ rights, gender identity, and other issues like sexual violence. The area of school-based sexual education is constantly developing.

This page discusses various state approaches to sex education and federal funding programs. For more information, visit FindLaw's Curriculum Standards and Funding section. You can also visit Curriculum and Ideology and Curriculum Decision Making.

What Is Comprehensive Sex Education?

Comprehensive programs generally teach that sexuality is natural and normal. They teach that sex is a healthy part of life. This type of program emphasizes that abstinence is the best way to avoid STDs and unintended pregnancies. They also teach about the use of contraceptives like condoms and birth control. These methods help reduce the risk of unintended pregnancy and STDs, including HIV. Comprehensive programs also teach interpersonal communication skills and help young people build healthier relationships.

These programs also provide accurate, factual information on other topics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), comprehensive programs cover more than just reproductive health. Comprehensive programs may discuss abortion, masturbation, and sexual orientation.

These programs might discuss religious values and how these values might play a role in one's sexual expression. These programs include topics like human development, relationships, sexual health, and society. They might also address sexual assault, LGBTQ+ issues, and promoting a healthy relationship with one's body.

The History of Sex Education Programs in Public Schools

Sex education curriculums in public schools date back decades. Earlier programs did not provide the depth and breadth of programs today. Over the years, public health and education standards have evolved. So have sex education programs. With the support of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, instructional materials were updated to be more inclusive. Some now mention topics like LGBTQ+ rights and gender identity.

Beginning in the 1980s, policymakers used tax-payer money to fund abstinence-only programs. There is evidence that these programs are ineffective. Yet, federal funding for these programs continues today. But Congress has reduced funding for abstinence-only programs in recent years. This is because there has been a shift toward more comprehensive sex education.

Funding for Sex Education Initiatives

Congress has provided funding for two sex education initiatives. These initiatives help support both evidence-based programs and comprehensive approaches. These programs work to prevent unintended teen pregnancy and STIs, including HIV. Additionally, Congress has allowed funding for HIV/AIDS prevention education. It protected this funding at the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health.

The funding that began in 2010 is under the jurisdiction of the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH). This office is within the Office of the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). The OAH works with all relevant agencies to implement the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative. It coordinates all activities within HHS relating to adolescent disease prevention.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is also relevant. This act was passed through the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP). PREP provides young people with medically accurate and age-appropriate sex education. This is an effort to reduce unintended pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and other STDs through evidence-based programs.

What Are Sexual Risk Avoidance Programs?

Sexual Risk Avoidance Programs are also prominent in the United States. These programs are promoted in states like Utah and Tennessee. They focus primarily on teaching minors to delay sexual activity until marriage. Unlike comprehensive sexual health education programs, these programs often emphasize avoiding sexual risks. The intention is to reduce the risk of STDs and unplanned pregnancies. However, critics argue these programs lack the breadth of information students need.

This type of program emphasizes abstinence. It teaches abstinence as the only correct and moral option for students. These programs generally teach that sexuality outside of marriage will have harmful consequences, including social, psychological, and physical issues. They teach that abstinence is the only acceptable behavior. They emphasize the negative consequences of pre-marital sexuality.

These programs only teach abstinence to prevent and protect students, neglecting other ways. They also censor information about contraception and condoms. Conversations about contraception may be about its failure rates. STDs are taught to be the inevitable result of pre-marital sexual behavior. These programs often omit other topics related to sex, such as masturbation and sexual orientation. These programs also do not address abortion. It's important to note that abstinence-only programs commonly promote specific religious values. This is true even if these programs are not explicitly labeled as such.

State Sex Education Policies

Sex education laws for public schools vary across the states. These laws reflect various perspectives across the nation and include educational, cultural, and political ideals. Here are a few examples of how states address sex education curricula across the nation.

  • Arizona: In this state, sex education is not mandatory. School districts decide whether to offer it. If schools do provide it, this education must focus on abstinence. If schools provide sex education, parental consent is required for student participation. This is known as an “opt-in" policy. In 2019, this state repealed the law that forbade promoting a “homosexual lifestyle" in these programs.
  • Colorado: In this state, students have a right to receive scientific and medically accurate information. Sex education programs are comprehensive. Topics should include methods of contraception and sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention. Instruction must be medically accurate, culturally sensitive, and inclusive of LGBTQ+ students.
  • Oregon: Schools must teach comprehensive sex education. Content must be age-appropriate, medically accurate, and inclusive. This curriculum emphasizes abstinence. Yet, it also addresses other methods of preventing pregnancy and STDs.
  • New Jersey: Schools must teach sex education. The curriculum must stress abstinence. The lessons must reflect the cultural and psychological aspects of family life. It also should address hygienic and sociological aspects. Instruction must be age-appropriate and medically accurate.
  • Wisconsin: Schools in this state are not required to teach sex education. Yet, school boards can choose to provide instruction. Schools here are required to teach about abstinence and STDs when discussing human growth. The curricula must be medically accurate and age-appropriate. Parents have the right to review instructional materials. Parents can also opt out of this instruction for their child.

As you can see, laws vary widely between states. You will want to research your state's laws to understand your rights in these jurisdictions. A legal professional in your area can also help you navigate your state's laws.

Designing Programs Specific for Grade Levels

The sex education curriculum must be age-appropriate. Middle school students, for instance, might learn about the basics of reproductive health. Meanwhile, high school students might delve deeper into topics like birth control. They might discuss and learn about STDs. Topics like sexual violence, gender identity, and LGBTQ+ rights might be discussed as the child gets older.

For more information on school curriculum, visit FindLaw's School Curriculum Basics page.

Can Parents Opt Out of Their Kids' Sex Ed Classes?

The topic of sex education can be deeply personal. It can also be controversial, depending on an individual's beliefs and values. In many states, school districts recognize this, so they allow parents to review health education curricula.

Most states provide an opt-out policy for sex education. This includes states like Iowa, Louisiana, and New York. For example, in the state of Michigan, parents can opt their children out of sex education classes. In fact, parents must receive written notice before their children undergo sexual education instruction. But Michigan also requires HIV education.

The policy in the state of Illinois is similar but not the same. In this state, parents can opt their children out of HIV prevention programs. With parental consent, children can opt out of any or all sex health education curriculum. This includes family life programs and STD/HIV prevention programs. In these states, if a parent finds certain content doesn't align with their personal or family beliefs, they might opt their child out.

Some states, including Arizona, Nevada, Utah, North Carolina, and Mississippi, provide an opt-in policy. Opt-in policies mean that schools need written parental or guardian consent before instructing students. They must get this consent before students may attend sex education classes.

Addressing Concerns Over Classroom Experiences

There might be times when parents or guardians feel uneasy about a teaching method in a sex education program. They may not like a guest speaker or the content shared during a sex education class. It's essential that parents have a pathway to voice their concerns. Parents deserve to seek clarity in these situations. Most school districts encourage open communication between parents and educators.

Parents can engage in dialogue with the school and address their concerns. They can also attend school board meetings, which usually allow for public comments. This provides parents with an avenue to share their thoughts or concerns. They can also request curriculum reviews. Remember, parents have the right to review instructional materials.

It's crucial to approach these situations with an open mind. It's important to work collaboratively. Parents, educators, and school boards can work together. Together, they can ensure sex education is both informative and respectful of diverse viewpoints.

Getting Legal Help Related to Sex Education

For parents or guardians concerned about the sex education curriculum in their state or district, legal recourse is an option. Understanding your rights and the education standards of your state is paramount.

You can find a legal expert in your area, regardless of which state you live in. These lawyers will understand your state's laws. They will help you navigate this sometimes complex area of education law.

Talk to an experienced education law attorney in your area today.

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