General Education

The State of Sex Education in American Schools

The State of Sex Education in American Schools
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Christine VanDonge January 27, 2016

While most kids in American public schools get some form of sex ed, the number of states that actually require it may surprise you. Learn about recent controversies and national statistics from Noodle Expert Christine VanDonge.

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Though public school systems in most states require students to receive some form of sex education, what that entails can vary widely.

The controversy about sexual content in public schools is neither new nor disappearing. Just this month, Omaha Public Schools held its first hearing in more than 30 years to introduce comprehensive sex ed as a replacement for what many see as an outdated program.

The school district <a href="{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }, which feature angry constituents making bold claims. Among the [many objections](" target="_blank">taped the proceedings was the accusation “that children are being force-fed material" and that elements of the curriculum are “garbage."

Given the strong reactions that sex-ed curricula seem to elicit, it may not come as a surprise that comprehensive sex education is relatively rare in public schools. This shouldn’t be the case, however. Data suggest that comprehensive sex education is valuable and necessary— but it isn’t yet widespread, nor are parents given good information about how they can further inform their kids. What follows is a closer look at the efficacy of comprehensive sex ed, its current position in the American school system, and its role within family discussions.

Why Students Need Sex Ed

A survey conducted in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 47 percent of high school students in the United States have had sexual intercourse. Sexual activity during adolescence closely correlates with an increased risk of sexually transmitted infection (STI) acquisition and unplanned pregnancy.

Given the prevalence of sexual activity among teenagers, sex education offers an important opportunity to inform adolescents about risk avoidance.

Generally speaking, there are two types of sex education that may be offered to students: programs that stress abstinence and programs that are comprehensive. The former encourage youth to delay sexual activity until marriage and often lack important information about human sexuality (such as details about development during puberty, reproductive anatomy, and sexual health).

In recent years, critics of abstinence-only instruction have pushed schools to offer students comprehensive sex education programs, as these have been found{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" } to delay the onset of sexual activity, reduce the number of sexual partners during adolescence, and increase the rate of contraceptive use among school-aged individuals.

Additionally, there has been minimal evidence{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" } to suggest that programs focusing heavily on abstinence delay the onset of sexual activity.

Some factors that do correlate with a delayed onset of sexual activity include healthy peer relationships, communication skills (with both parents and partners), and knowledge of the potential consequences of sex. Importantly, youth who feel supported in their decision to abstain from sexual activity by their peers are, in fact, more likely to abstain.

What Sex Ed Looks Like by State

Currently, only 22 states and the District of Columbia mandate sexual education. A recent report{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" } from the CDC estimates that about one-fifth of middle school students and half of high school students receive sex-ed classes fully aligned with its recommendations.

Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia require HIV education (and of these 33, 13 do not mandate sexual education more broadly). The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing reproductive health, has assembled a guide{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" } that can help parents understand the general requirements for sexual and HIV education within their state. The publication answers several important questions:

  • What types of programs (sexual education, HIV education, or both) are mandated within a given state?
  • When mandated, what education requirements accompany the program (e.g., age-appropriateness, medical accuracy, cultural appropriateness)?
  • What is the role of parents in the program? Must they be notified or give consent? Can parents opt their kids out of these classes?
  • What is the content of the program? A few examples: Does it include information on contraceptives or abstinence? Does it cover the negative outcomes associated with teenage sexual activity? Does it address sexual orientation or identity? Does it provide strategies for avoiding coerced sex?

What Parents Can Do

Though states may not formally mandate sex ed, most kids get at least some information on the subject in school.

In 35 states as well as in the District of Columbia, however, parents can choose to opt their kids out of sexual education. As a parent, you may struggle with the idea of your child learning about sexuality from someone other than you or someone close to you. In deciding what is best for your family, here are a few important points to consider:

As a parent, you can enhance what your child is learning in school.

It’s important to remain involved in your kids’ education — and this is especially true when they’re involved in a sex-ed program. Even though you may regularly ask your kid, “What did you do in school today?" and your child might regularly respond, “Nothing," you should press a little harder. Try to get a meaningful response out of your child. This can lead to a dialogue about what your child is learning and how she feels about it.

No matter what’s happening in school, there’s still room to discuss your personal values.

Discussing your child’s sex-ed curriculum with her can provide a prime opportunity to outline your family’s values around sexuality. Thus, if you as a parent hope that your child will abstain from sex until marriage, you will have the opportunity to explain why you feel that way, and why this is important to your family.

If you opt your child out of sex ed, you should be a sexual educator.

Parents who do not want their children to receive information about sexuality from school have a big responsibility to teach their kids about sexual development. Now more than ever, there are many media outlets.

Parents who do not wish to have their child participate in the programs offered in school should seek out programs or curricula that they can use at home. While families should feel free to share their values with kids, they should also present these values with facts that are both medically accurate and developmentally appropriate.

To this end, parents should consider attending workshops in their local communities, or consider implementing a curriculum like There’s No Place Like Home . . . for Sex Education.

While the specifics of sex-ed programs will continue to be controversial for many families across the country, it’s crucially important for parents to partner with schools so that children get the information they need to stay healthy and safe.

Read the latest updates and opinions on education-related news from Noodle.

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