Inside the Toxic Sex Education Battle in Tucson, Arizona

September 12, 2019

On September 10, the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) Governing Board decided to delay a vote on a proposed sex-education revision after a chaotic public hearing was swarmed by protests.

The TUSD has proposed revising a program called the Family Life Curriculum (FLC), an optional two-week course taught to students between grades 4-12. The curriculum subject matter changes according to the grade level. Local citizens in Arizona demonstrated at the September 10 hearing in opposition to—or in support of—revised curricula related to sex and sexuality, gender identity and other topics.

The FLC was first implemented by the district in 1995, and updated once in 2006. The district has been developing the new revisions for four years. It researched other sex education programs from around the country, and solicited student input. After two previous hearings in August, the TUSD intended to either adopt or reject the revisions according to this week’s vote.

“Pastors at our churches told people we’re introducing pornography, or teaching first-graders how to masturbate.”

But furious demonstrations nearly derailed the hearing from even being held. Opponents of the revisions urged a no vote on “CSE (comprehensive sex-education)”, saying it would increase HIV and abortions, and urged that “family education” stay in the home. Supporters of the proposed changes expressed backing for LGBTQ youth and sex-education in general, citing the public health benefits of the new approach.

“The environment yesterday was pretty toxic, and every public forum has been pretty hard to sit through,” Adelita Grijalva, president of the TUSD board, told Filter. “We’ve had local groups put out wholly incorrect information about what we’re doing; pastors at our churches told people we’re introducing pornography, or teaching first-graders how to masturbate. None of it is true but that’s what many people now believe we’re doing.”

Grijalva indicated that most of the demonstrators have not actually read the publicly-available curriculum, and stressed that the TUSD is adhering to state law. She also pointed out that other school districts in Arizona have implemented similar changes with little fanfare or controversy.

TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo proposed his own revisions to the curriculum on September 10, and made other recommendations for how to resolve the conflict. He called for a district-wide “teach-in”, which parents could attend to see how the lessons would be taught. He also proposed a training plan for all teachers who would teach the lessons, and the provision of alternative curricula if students don’t opt in for the FLC.

“You should learn the whole curriculum and decide for yourself what you’re comfortable with your child learning,” Grijalva said. “All schools need to do is give students the information and the skills, and then you as a parent can talk about your own morals and values that go with it.” She noted that she was taught in this same junior high school how to put a condom on a banana—in 1983.

Arizona has some state regulations for how sex education must be taught in schools. It is among half of US states that do not require mandatory sex education—students must actively opt in for the lessons. Arizona also does not require sex education to be medically accurate—only 13 US states do. It does, however, require that sex education be age-appropriate. Notably, Arizona also requires that educators emphasize sexual abstinence as the only 100-percent effective way to prevent pregnancies. Teachers are not required to teach about contraception.

Abstinence-only education is “not just unrealistic, but leaves young people without the information and skills that they need.”

But what does the science say about this?

Abstinence-only education is “not just unrealistic, but it leaves our young people without the information and skills that they need,” said Laura Lindberg, who co-authored a report in the Journal of Adolescent Health reviewing the efficacy of this approach.

They found that abstinence-based programs do not reduce teenage pregnancy or STDs, nor do they prevent youth from engaging in sexual activity. And when young people educated in this way do have sex, they are less likely to use contraception or other harm reduction measures.

“Condoms are a critical component in a comprehensive and sustainable approach to the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections … and are effective for preventing unintended pregnancies,” noted the World Health Organization in 2015.

The WHO cited countries like India and Thailand, which distributed condoms to sex workers and their clients, and succeeded in reducing STD rates. Zimbabwe and South Africa also helped reduce their high HIV rates in part by increasing condom use. Worldwide, since the first HIV epidemic in the 1980s, it is estimated that condoms have helped to avert nearly 50 million new HIV infections.

As far as LGBTQ-related topics are concerned, there is an urgent need to better educate young people about how to respect each others’ sexualities, gender identities and gender expressions. Human Rights Campaign found in a 2012 survey of 10,000 children that LGBTQ youth are more than twice as likely as other children to report being physically abused or assaulted. Four in 10 LGBTQ children say their community does not accept them.

LGBTQ youth are also at an increased risk of suicide, according to the National LGBT Health Education Center. In 2015, LGBTQ high school students were 4.5 times more likely than other students to attempt suicide. Suicidal thoughts are influenced in part by the stigmatization, harassment and bias that LGBTQ students face from their families and peers.

Constructive debate about how schools and educators should approach these sensitive topics while respecting parents’ cultural or spiritual needs could certainly be valuable. But contentions that schools should ignore these topics—or worse, teach scientifically inaccurate information—are literally killing our children.

Photo of condoms by Corode via WikiMedia Commons.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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