Texas teens and educators say new sex education curriculum is 'two steps forward, one step back'
Students across Texas will see new health curriculum, including sexual health, implemented in their classrooms in 2022. It is the first time in more than two decades that the State Board of Education (SBOE) updated the learning goals, but some educators and teens say update or not, there’s still a lot missing.
The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Health Education, or TEKS, are divided by grade level to address various aspects of health, from mental health and wellness, to reproductive systems. Starting in the fourth grade, students learn about sexual health topics like puberty, relationships, and reproduction, centered around abstinence education. A 2020 update introduced new TEKS on sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, and contraception. It does not include information on gender identity, sexuality or consent.
Cali Byrd is a junior at Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas. She remembers in eighth grade a group came to talk to her class about STIs.
“They had a bunch of tennis balls and wrote [the names] of STIs on them,” Byrd said. “Then they had a couple of kids come up, put on gloves, and said, ‘If he throws the ball to her and she has a glove on, then she’s protected. But if she doesn’t have a glove on, then she’ll get the disease or something.’ It was really weird.”
Byrd said the instructors never explained what the STIs were, just that people should wear condoms to prevent them.
“It really was not helpful,” she said. “By the time you're in eighth grade, you know what a condom is, you know to wear a condom. So it's like, okay, we get it, but why? And what are other things we can do? Because we’re not just preventing STIs.”
She said since that presentation, she hasn’t gotten any sex education in school. In 2020, she joined a peer group with Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas where she got to learn more.
“I learned about specific STIs, what they did, viral versus bacterial,” Byrd said. “I learned different methods of birth control. It was a lot of catching up.”
She’s not sure how much her other friends know, though.
“It's a taboo topic, but the part that shouldn't be taboo, which is the education part of it, for some reason is,” Byrd said. “It's weirder to talk about that than it is to talk about, like, dirtier stuff.”
Organizations across Texas are trying to mainstream conversations about sexual health through education and resources for caregivers and kids. Terry Greenberg, the founder of North Texas Alliance to Reduce Unintended Pregnancy in Teens (NTARUPT), has done this work for about ten years. She said getting information about health is an essential part of growing up.
“Your reproductive and sexual health is really important for your life,” Greenberg said. “Not only does it determine your personal health, it’s the health of your family. If you’re not giving kids that, you’re not equipping them to be adults.”
Teen birth rates across the country have been declining since 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Despite declines, Texas is routinely in the top ten states with the highest teen birth rate, from 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Educational guides from the CDC state that providing students with medically accurate and inclusive sexual health education can reduce unintended consequences like teen pregnancy and STIs.
“If the teen birth rate is that high, we want to make sure it's because kids are having all the choices that they should have,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg said the TEKS updates in 2020 from the SBOE had “a lot of great stuff,” but educators and advocates were frustrated with some policy changes. New policies in 2021 stated that caregivers must opt in, rather than opt out, for their kids to receive health education in schools. This includes information on topics like abusive relationships and sex trafficking.
“That's really a huge logistical barrier for kids to actually get it,” Greenberg said. “Do you really care about the reproductive health of these kids? You have to give them information. So, it’s always two steps forward, one step back, but we’re used to it.”
Gov. Greg Abbott framed the opt-in issue as “safeguard[ing] parental rights regarding this type of instruction.” The governor has also tasked the Texas Education Agency and the SBOE to investigate the content of books in public schools to “to ensure no child is exposed to pornography or other inappropriate content in a Texas public school.” Across the state, this has led to reviews of school libraries, especially books with content discussing race, gender, sexuality and sexual health, and reprirmands for teachers keeping books with these topics in the classroom.
It’s also a frustrating cycle for J.R. Chester, a project director with the statewide advocacy organization the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. She knows from experience.
“I was a repeat teen mom,” Chester said. “Our oldest is 16. He is just a year younger than I was when I got pregnant with him. Then, after I gave birth to him, three months later, we were pregnant with number two.”
The Dallas native said she doesn’t remember anyone explaining to her what contraceptives were, or why she menstruated every month.
“No one took the time to tell me, this is why your body is doing this,” said Chester. “Things are just happening to me, I'm changing, I'm developing, my hormones are raging. I'm having new emotions and feelings and desires. And nobody's talking to me about it, and then [I got] pregnant.”
She worked with Parkland Hospital System for about 10 years, helping youth navigate health services, before taking on the statewide role with the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
“I know the information that would have been helpful for me in preventing teen pregnancy in my own personal life, and it’s something that I want to make sure our future generations have so that they can plan,” Chester said.
There are still a lot of myths about health and reproduction that Chester works to debunk, even with adults.
“A lot of my female students had no idea that sexual intercourse didn't take place in the same hole that they urinated from,” said Chester. “They had this myth in their mind that oh, well, can't you just pee it out? I hear that a lot as a method of pregnancy prevention.”
At home, she talks with her kids at all ages about health, from using the anatomically correct names of body parts with her younger children to explaining relationships with her teenagers.
“A lot of our education in this household has been between parents and children,” Chester said. “That's because I have the resources and the education to provide it. If I wasn't in this role, and hadn't been doing this for 10 years, I don't know if I would know what to say to them, honestly.”
Chester, Greenberg and high school student Cali Byrd are optimistic conversations about sexual health will continue to be more routine as the years go on.
“I like the idea of qualified teachers being trained to do it,” said Greenberg. “I like the idea of every kid sitting in a class, feeling like they're being spoken to. And I hope it's just really standard so that everyone gets it—it's like math, and we don't have to fight about it.”
Byrd said she wishes there was more communication between students and people from the state deciding on health education.
“They need to look at it from the perspective of a child in school,” Byrd said. “You can't make a law concerning how someone lives their life when you don't understand how they live their life.”
Overall, she thinks more information at school will give kids a better sense of self moving forward.
“I just hope that in the future, we have moved past this idea that in order to protect kids, we have to stop them from learning,” Byrd said. “We move past that and instead actually teach them what they need to know.”
While health curriculum implementation varies across districts and schools, Chester hopes the recent changes will create a safe space for students like Byrd to ask questions and learn more about their own health.
“I think people hear sexual health, and some of them get really squeamish about it,” she said. “But sexual health is your understanding of your body, your basic functioning, how you're put together, why. That's really harmful to shame something that is normal, because what you're doing is teaching a young person that something is wrong with them.”
Back in November, the SBOE approved health textbooks for middle schools and high schools, but didn’t agree on textbooks for elementary schoolers. This means that as elementary schools teach new health standards this year, most districts will have to find their own textbooks to do so.
Got a tip? Email Elena Rivera at Erivera@kera.org. You can follow Elena on Twitter @ElenaIsWriting.
Keren Carrión is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Got a tip? Email Keren at Kcarrion@kera.org. You can follow Keren on Instagram @kerencarrionphoto.