Sex Education Often Lacking in Texas Schools
By Jennifer Errico
In February of 2016, Elyse’s period was three weeks late.
She didn’t think anything of it. In fact, she was grateful she got to skip a month. Three weeks, however, turned into five, which then turned into seven.
Growing wary, the 15-year-old confided in her boyfriend at the time. The second he heard the word “late,” it clicked. She was pregnant.
“I was a child expecting a child,” Elyse, a speech-language pathology junior at the University of Texas at Austin, said. “I didn’t know what to do. I mean, there literally was no right answer.”
On a Wednesday afternoon, while her parents were at work, she curled into a ball on her shower floor and took a single dose of Mifepristone she bought behind a gas station. After profusely bleeding for six hours, she aborted the child.
“It was traumatic,” Elyse said. “I broke up with my boyfriend right after and was terrified of (having) sex for two years. I mean, even now, I still feel the pain. It doesn’t just go away.”
Elyse attended Klein High School in Houston and said her sex education was nonexistent. She received no guidance, information or resources to navigate her sexual journey and felt unequipped to handle the outcomes. A 2017 report by the Texas Freedom Network discovered 58.3% of Texas school districts took an abstinence-only approach to sex education, and 25% taught no sex education at all. The report also indicated that some current sex education curriculums incorporated discriminatory and false information about the LGBTQIA2+ community and medically inaccurate information about abortion.
However, this is not the global norm.
According to a global review published by the United Nations Population Fund, 80% of countries have age and culture-appropriate policies to support comprehensive sexuality education.
Zsolt Szabad, a middle school Tennis coach at American International School in Vienna, teaches a one month long course about safe sex and exploring sexuality from grades six through eight. Szabad said for the first two weeks, girls and boys are split up by gender to create a safe space to ask questions.
“We want to normalize the changes (the kids) are going through,” Szabad said. “It’s inevitable, so we want everyone to feel prepared and comfortable. We blew up condom balloons the other day just to remove the awkwardness from it.”
For each grade level, new age appropriate content is discussed. Szabad said in sixth grade puberty is specified by gender, seventh grade curriculum explores sexuality and sex and eighth grade topics focus on the consequences of sex such as Sexually Transmitted Diseases, pregnancy and consensual sex.
“In other countries sex is stigmatized by gender,” Szabad said. “We want to ensure kids are aware of everything before they go into high school so they can take steps to preventing unhealthy relationships and situations that could lead to long lasting mental trauma.”
Journalism sophomore Shezan Samanani also received four years of sex education at her middle school in Alberta, Canada, as part of her physical education curriculum. Samanani said she was grateful to avoid awkward conversations with her parents and learn alongside her peers.
Samanani describes the experience as becoming aware rather than scared. She remembers her P.E. teacher high-fiving students in the hallways with pads on her hands to normalize periods and putting condoms on bananas.
“Honestly (sex education) worked so well,” Samanani said. “It was very helpful in making me feel more secure with myself, and I probably would have ended up relying on the internet without it.”
She wishes her curriculum could have been more female-focused as she never learned about oral contraceptives or qualities of a functional, healthy relationship.
When she moved to Dallas her junior year, she received no further sex education.
However, some sex education curriculums in Texas public schools have recently adapted to an abstinence-plus method.
In 2016, Austin Independent School District decided to update its human sexuality and responsibility curriculum. After three years, its third through eighth-grade HSR sequence was approved by the Board of Trustees. In March 2019, all middle school science teachers received human sexuality foundation training, according to the AISD revision timeline.
Michele Rusnak, assistant director of health and physical education at AISD, jumpstarted the program. She wants kids to feel safe and have a trusted adult to turn to when dealing with frightening situations.
Rusnak uses the example of a third-grader whose father sexually abused her. When the child tried to explain to prosecutors what happened, she couldn’t articulate where her father abused her because she didn’t know her body parts.
“Kids need to be able to protect themselves,” Rusnak said. “Being able to talk to a trusted adult is really important, and for some kids, their only trusted adult is their abuser, so having other people and resources to go to for help is crucial for their safety.”
Rusnak stressed that the K-12 curriculum is designed specifically for each grade level, so children learn the essentials through each age milestone. Children focus on puberty, body anatomy, and reproductive health in late elementary school and middle school. In high school, they learn about Sexual Transmitted Infections, Sexual Transmitted Diseases, birth control methods beyond abstinence, sex trafficking and sex abuse to help guide them toward healthy relationships.
Rusnak said that the curriculum has yet to be consistent because of COVID-19. Spring 2020 was the first year educators would teach the curriculum, but remote learning postponed it.
In 2021, Rusnak revised the course to be taught before winter break, so students could become comfortable with their educators and ask questions throughout the spring semester. Rusnak said she is anxious to hear student feedback this upcoming fall and see if the curriculum benefits students’ overall health and learning.
Rusnak said the most challenging part about teaching sex education in Texas is ensuring the curriculum meets legislative standards.
Per Texas education codes, all public schools must teach abstinence as the core component of sex education and refrain from teaching about consent and sexual orientation. Senate Bill 9 also states schools can have no association with Planned Parenthood, so only medical resources are referred to in the curriculum.
Furthermore, Texas school districts now follow an opt-in system where parents must request their child receive sex education. In other words, the curriculum is optional.
Rusnak said she also received significant pushback from some parent groups when first introducing the idea of a more comprehensive sex curriculum.
Concerned Parents of Texas, a group of community members against sex education, believe parents have the right to teach their kids about sex, not educators. According to their website, schools are robbing children of their innocence by introducing explicit concepts to minors too early. They also believe schools are pushing an LGBTQIA2+ and Planned Parenthood agenda about sexual and gender experimentation.
Rusnak said educators keep their curricula as neutral as possible to teach students purely about the facts.
“I hope we educate kids to make informed decisions based on their family values,” Rusnak said. “I hope to save lives I may not even know about and not make anyone feel ostracized.”
Without education in high school, some students feel lost in college. Olga Alejandra, who attended high school in Houston, relied on her friends to discuss sexuality. Growing up in a Catholic household, her parents didn’t believe in premarital sex, so she felt uncomfortable asking questions and pretended sexuality wasn’t in her vocabulary.
“My mom wouldn’t let me even be in the same room as a boy,” Alejandra said. “She grew up with the chaste mindset and wanted me to grow up the same. But people are having sex. It’s inevitable.”
Alejandra said navigating sexuality in college was complicated because she didn’t fully comprehend all the layers. She didn’t realize the consequences of nonconsensual sex, STIs, and toxic relationships.
Amaris Govea, a junior at Austin Community College, wants to be a sex therapist to provide a comfortable environment for anyone to discuss their apprehensions about sex and sexuality.
Govea said her parents were open about sexual conversations, making her feel comfortable communicating questions and seeking out healthy romantic situations throughout high school.
“My friends relied on me a lot for advice because they couldn’t go to their parents,” Govea said. “I mean, I wasn’t an expert or anything, but I told them everything my parents told me and normalized their experiences, so there was no shame around it.”
Govea said communication and exploring yourself are essential for healthy sexual relationships. However, the stigma around discussing sex-related topics halts emotional growth and sometimes makes people feel trapped.
Govea is a psychology major now since Texas universities don’t offer a sex education path, but she hopes to become a licensed therapist to provide an open platform for anyone to seek help exploring their sexual journey.
Govea expressed that sex is normal. She hopes the next generation will adopt a more global mindset of openly discussing it.
“Everybody goes through sexuality,” Rusnak said. “We are all human beings who want to love and be loved. And there’s a whole lot of unhealthy love out there. I wonder where half my friends and I would be if we learned we didn’t have to accept abusive behavior back in middle school. My ultimate hope is the kids learn how to be healthy and comfortable with themselves.”
Editor’s Note: Elyse’s name is anonymous to protect her identity.