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Sex Education Laws and Public Schools

Sex education is taught in public schools on topics ranging from abstinence and reproduction to sexual orientation and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). As part of many health education initiatives, sexual education addresses a wide variety of topics related to sexual health.

Sex education is primarily introduced in grades seven through twelve, although some schools have addressed sexuality topics as early as the fourth grade. The following is a primer on sex education laws and public schools, including the topics typically covered and the ongoing debate about how sex ed is taught.

Whether sex education is considered age-appropriate for any given grade-level student may vary from one state to the next, while ideally it should encourage healthy relationships as students come of age and enter the period of their lives where they begin engaging in sexual activity.

Issues of human sexuality and reproductive health tend to be delicate topics. Read on to learn more about how sex education is handled in public schools and how various laws affect how this topic is taught.

State Sex Education Laws

Sex education laws vary greatly among the states. Most states have laws that address some form of sexual education in schools, differing between what may or may not be taught and whether a parent may remove their child from certain sexual education programs with which they disagree.

As dictated by state laws, the health education curriculum your child may experience can be very different depending on where you are located, while you may also be within your rights to withdraw your child from a course you feel is objectionable.

The majority of states allow parents to remove their child or "opt out" of sexually related instruction, while other states require affirmative parental consent for a child to take sexual education classes or participate in school-based health clinic services.

Of the states that don't currently have sexual education laws on the books, sexual education policies can typically be found in district codes or other education department manuals. Still other states allow local authorities to decide whether parents may opt-out or provide consent for a child's participation in sex education classes.

Of the states addressing sex education in schools, topics covered can include:

  • Abstinence
  • HIV/AIDS and other STD- or sexually transmitted infection (STI)-related information
  • Reproduction, including description of genitalia
  • Contraception, including instruction on the proper use of contraceptive techniques, pregnancy prevention more generally, and varieties of and methods for birth control
  • Pregnancy and the financial responsibilities of raising a child
  • Adoption
  • Sexual orientation

Because the laws vary, it's important to check the sex education laws of your particular state and/or school district. Know that you may have decision-making powers which extend into the varieties of subject matter to which you may or may not want your child to be exposed in any sex ed program.

Purpose of Sex Education Laws

Sex education in schools was meant to curb unwanted pregnancies and address public health concerns, such as teen pregnancy and STDs or STIs. Even so, the idea of teaching young people about sex in schools caused a backlash among those who believed it was best left to the parents, or who disagreed with the various sex ed programs implemented in public schools.

State laws tried to address these concerns by allowing parents to exempt their children from sex education courses or by including abstinence methods within their curriculum.

Still, some critics argue that state laws don't always solve the tension between the interests of the state and the interests of parents in what sex education programs are taught in public schools. Some have even argued that teaching about the use of contraceptives (including instruction on the proper use of a condom) may contribute to a minor's delinquency.

Pros and Cons of Teaching Sex Education in Public Schools

There are several arguments for and against the teaching of sex education in schools. Supporters claim that exposure to such information, including STDs or STIs and the proper use of contraceptives, lowers teen pregnancy and STD or STI infection rates. They would also argue that most teenagers are, or will be, sexually active and that public schools are a proper venue for sex education particularly for those children who don't have any other exposure to the topic. As such, supporters typically favor a more comprehensive approach to sex education.

Opponents of certain sex education programs in public schools, on the other hand, argue that the parents should have a say in what is taught to their children, particularly when it comes to such sensitive topics that could contradict a family's own moral or religious values. Opponents of certain sex education programs in schools typically favor a focus on teaching abstinence (waiting to have sex until marriage or a committed relationship) as the best way to protect children from the physical and psychological effects of having sex at a young age.

Abstinence-Only Sex Education

Much of the debate today is centered on whether schools should teach abstinence-only or comprehensive sex education. Those favoring an abstinence-only approach correctly point out that abstinence is the only way to prevent pregnancy and STDs or STIs with 100 percent certainty and cite to studies showing the benefits of abstinence education. They also point out the emotional complexities that often accompany an active sex life.

However, critics argue that abstinence-only programs fail to prepare those kids who do have sex and point to studies showing that inaccurate or incomplete information about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases lead to higher rates of unintended pregnancies and STDs or STIs.

LGBTQ+-Inclusive Sex Ed Programs

According to a report released by activist group Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity (URGE), the majority of American students do not have access to LGBTQ+-inclusive sex ed programs. While sex ed programs are under legal mandate in 29 states and the District of Columbia, the report points to systemic failures in the absence of universal consideration of LGBTQ+-inclusive approaches to sex education.

For example, while the report indicates that 85% of parents support discussion of sexual orientation in sex ed classes, very few states require LGBTQ+-friendly subject matter and teaching approaches by law. Put another way, the report points to how in abstinence-only programs, students tend to receive messages promoting fear of LGBTQ+-related attraction. Lacking inclusive discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation, such messages also tend to “reinforce gender stereotypes and straight relationships."

The report also indicates that access to LGBTQ+-friendly sex ed material is more limited amongst Black-, Latino-, and Indigenous-predominant school communities, while the report also indicates that LGBTQ+ students are 50% more likely to report that their sex education was “not useful."

Citing a report by the American Journal of Sexual Education, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has also drawn attention to how only “seventeen states require discussion of sexual orientation," while only 10 require “information to be inclusive of gender and sexuality." According to that report, the majority of teens also have said that typical discussions of sexual intercourse involve only varieties related to straight relationships.

Both reports point to the same conclusion, which is that LGBTQ+-inclusive programs for sex ed remain deficient, while moves to remedy this problem remain in motion. For example, to varying degrees, the reports point to the following: lacking in instructional materials and discussions of LGBTQ+-inclusive topics, school health programs tend to be lacking in their approaches to universal consideration of non-gender normative frameworks for teaching in sex ed programs.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that LGBTQ+ students remain at higher risks for sexual violence and are subject to “negative attitudes" that increase the risks of violence, most states still do not place requirements on LGBTQ+-inclusivity for sex ed programs, or even within education programs beyond the scope of sex ed.


Recent polls by various media, health, and social organizations have concluded that most families support the idea of teaching sex education in schools to some extent, but that there is disagreement among the topics that should be covered. Although there are still pockets of parents who adamantly reject the idea that schools teach their children anything about sex, there's generally little debate that some form of sex education should be taught. Absent still from most comprehensive sexual health education programs is LGBTQ+-inclusivity.

Questions About Sex Education Law and Public Schools? Talk to an Attorney

As you can see, sex education in schools can be controversial, with concerns that certain curricula could contribute to the delinquency of a minor. This can also come up in the context of a custody dispute, as it may be one reason why parents disagree on where the child should go to school. You can learn more about the law and your rights by contacting an experienced family law attorney in your area.

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