By: Eden Mae Richman and Taliyah Cooper
Riverside, like many other schools across the state and country, follows loose sex education curriculum guidelines, leaving many students without essential information in substandard health classes.
Elinya Black’s physical education (PE) class chatted quietly as they completed book work from textbooks published in 2010.
The books, many of which were tattered and vandalized with over a decade of student use, along with the corresponding three page stapled packet the students answered is the extent of their sex education curriculum.
“She just gave us a textbook and told us to fill out the work,” freshman Bea McCabe, one of the students in the class said. “All the material was outdated.”
The packet was organized into two sections: “Responsible Relationships” and “Choosing Abstinence.” The responsible relationship section in the textbook is subdivided into “Physical Attraction and Dating” and “Violence in Dating Relationships,” which provides Black’s mostly ninth grade students with information about domestic violence and date rape, as well as general information about dating, like “By dating someone, you can learn about his or her interests, personality, abilities, and values.”
“I learned more from sex ed in fifth grade,” said freshman Tula Winton, who was also in Black’s class.
The entirety of the textbook’s sex education information lies in a four-page spread under the bright red title, “Choosing Abstinence.” The first two pages detail the “Risks of Sexual Intimacy,” including damage to one’s emotional health, complications to the relationship, and the risk of pregnancy.
The remaining pages in the section provide students with “Abstinence Skills.”
“For example, if you are at an unsupervised party, you might feel pressured to have sex,” one part of the section reads. “But if you are in a public place, the temptation to engage in sexual activities is not as great.”
Nowhere in the textbook, nor in the corresponding packet, is consent explicitly referenced. Assault is not discussed outside of the “Violence in Dating Relationships” section.
In the “Assert Yourself” portion of the “Abstinence Skills” section, the textbook offers strategies on how to practice abstinence. “At times, however, simply saying no once may not be effective,” it reads. “You may need to be firm and say something like, ‘No! I said I don’t want to do that.’ You may need to repeat yourself a few times before your partner realizes you are serious. If necessary, get up and walk away.”
But some students found this insufficient.
“Without learning about how to give consent it’s harder to have safe sex that both parties are willing to do,” Winton said. “Many people have different ideas about what consent actually is.”
What are teachers allowed to teach?
North Carolina’s legislation surrounding sex education leaves the curriculum up to the county, so long as they cover all topics in the Healthy Youth Act, a 2009 law that added reproductive health and safety education to a curriculum that previously taught abstinence-only-until-marriage.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction created the Healthful Living Essential Standards document in 2011, which contains all of the curricular material that health teachers must cover in their courses. The content is categorized into five subjects: mental and emotional health, personal and consumer health, interpersonal communication and relationships, nutrition and physical activity, and alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.
All of the sex-ed curricula falls under the “Interpersonal Communication and Relationships” section, and is subsequently sub-divided into three essential standards: understand healthy and effective interpersonal communication and relationships, evaluate abstinence from sexual intercourse as a positive choice for young people, and create strategies that develop and maintain reproductive and sexual health . The third essential standard contains course content ranging from sexual assault myths and prevention to preventing and treating STDs.
“The state doesn’t leave things up to the district; they provide a standard course of study,” Former Riverside teacher and current DPS Director of Health, PE and Drivers Education David Hackney said. “We don’t tell [health teachers] to teach anything. They are trained to provide the state’s health standards.”
According to Hackney, schools within Durham Public Schools District are provided with state approved textbooks and supplemental materials that cover the state’s standards.
However, he also said it’s been well over ten years since schools were last provided with new textbooks and materials.
The textbooks Black and other Riverside health teachers instruct from do not contain all of the material outlined in DPI’s essential standards. Notably, missing was the required STI prevention and contraception topics from the third essential standard.
“Any textbook we use coincides with the curriculum provided by the state,” Hackney said. “They are used to supplement the state curriculum.”
“As a parent of three kids, I don’t really think it’s on the schools to share this information I want to give them at home.”Michael WHitfield
As a result, it is expected that schools will provide students with instruction on topics absent from the textbooks and any additional materials to understand these subjects.
“We rely on guest speakers from the Durham Health Department to come in and share supplemental information,” said Michael Whitfield, Health and Physical Education Department. “The last time we offered [the speakers] was pre-COVID.”
As a result, current freshmen, sophomores, and juniors have not received any supplemental information beyond the textbook.
“We try to cover information on our own, but we rely on these speakers,” Whitfield said.
However, Whitfield believes that the schools should not be responsible for the entirety of sex education.
“As a parent of three kids,” he said. “I don’t really think it’s on the schools to share this information I want to give them at home.”
In lieu of guest speakers, teachers are left to supplement material on their own as they see fit.
“The curriculum rules I follow as a teacher are pretty relaxed,” Black said. “We are supposed to touch on the chapters we feel are most important to address to our students today.”
Black planned on going over the textbook materials in class and supplementing the lesson with additional information in a discussion, but during this particular semester the class ran out of time before the semester ended.
“As a health teacher, I believe my role as an educator is to educate safe practices, the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘what could happen,’” she said. “Being realistic in these types of relations is the best route possible in my eyes.”
However, she added, “As a class we did not get a chance to go over the sex-ed materials I planned on presenting.”
Part of a Bigger Picture
Riverside students aren’t the only ones missing out on sex-ed.
According to a national study conducted by Guttmacher Institute, around half of adolescents (53% of females and 54% of males) reported receiving sex education classes that meet the minimum standards of Healthy People 2030 in 2015-2019. Additionally, less than half of adolescents (43% of females and 47% of males) received this sex education instruction before engaging in intercourse.
The study also showed the nature of instruction tended to emphasize abstinence over contraception. In 2015-2019 a significant portion of adolescents (81% of females and 79% of males) reported receiving instruction on saying no to sex or waiting until marriage (67% of females and 58% of males), while less than half of students reported learning about where to obtain birth control (48% of females and 45% of males) or how to use a condom (55% of females and 60% of males).
This is a sharp decline from what students reported in 1995, when 81% of males and 87% of females) reported receiving instruction on birth control methods. Twenty years later, only 63% of males and 64% of females reported receiving instruction between 2015-19.
“The U.S. federal government began supporting sexual abstinence promotion programs in 1981,” according to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2017. “Funding was greatly expanded after 1996 and focused on exclusionary programs (i.e., abstinence only), which restricted the provision of other information.”
The same study estimated that since the mid-1990s the United States Federal Government has spent around $2 billion on abstinence-only programs.
This comes in spite of data from the CDC reporting that 41% of high school students are sexually active, and research from various organizations suggest that not only is abstinence-only education ineffective, it is also unethical because it withholds accurate medical information from adolescents.
What do comprehensive curriculums look like?
Planned Parenthood, a national nonprofit organization, offers a different approach to sex education. The organization has been in the political crosshairs around issues of sex-ed and abortion rights, and often loses state and federal funding when republican majorities are elected into office. But it continues to provide educational resources that go well beyond the state standards.
“Our job is to help teens make responsible decisions,” said Monika Thigpen, the Senior Director of Education at Planned Parenthood South Atlantic. “Teens are talking about a lot of things and a lot of issues and we just want to be sure you all are giving accurate information to one another.”
Planned Parenthood executes this with information provided by the Department for Health and Human services.
“Our curriculums are evidence based,” Thigpen said. “That means they have already been tested and proven to increase knowledge and change behaviors.”
One curriculum Planned Parenthood offers high school classes is “Get Real High School.” The 12-day course covers the topics: Introduction to Sexuality, Reproductive Anatomy, Gender, Sex & Shared Responsibility, Sexual Identity, Reasons & Methods for Preventing Pregnancy, Preventing STIs and Pregnancy, Sexual Risks and Low-Risk Intimacy, Negotiating in Relationships, Social Media Literacy and Sexuality, Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships, Consent, and Accessing Health Care.
“We focus on comprehensive sex ed so a young person can know what decisions work best for them in any given situation ” Karina Martinez Romo, a Community Health Educator for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said. “If you imagine that someone was only taught abstinence sex education and they’re in a situation where they don’t want to practice abstinence, that can be harmful for the young person not to have accurate information about what to do in that situation.”
According to Thigpen, these curriculums aim to create peer leaders who can provide accurate information and context to conversations. To encourage teen participation, Planned Parenthood offers rewards ranging from a pizza party to a $100 stipend for completing the course.
The courses are free for schools to utilize and implement.
“In order for Durham Public Schools to be involved with planned parenthood, health teachers can contact Karina Martinez and set a schedule,” Thigpen said.
“I am the lucky person that gets to work with Durham County Schools!” Martinez said. “I would initiate conversations with your health teachers and we would plan the next steps for me to come in and talk to you guys.”
“We don’t work with any student that doesn’t have parent permission,” Thigpen added. “All students in our program have to have parent permission.”
Many students agree that Riverside students should become some of the 15,000 teens Thigpen estimates her team reaches a year in different capacities.
“I do think sex-ed is one of the most important things to learn about in health class,” said Jonah Weiss, another ninth grade student who took health class last semester. “It should be prioritized.”
McCabe agreed, “People won’t be safe if they aren’t educated.”
Whitfield plans to bring back guest speakers as soon as next semester and district leaders are also open to reimagining the current resources.
“I haven’t seen [sex-ed] brought to the board in a long time,” School Board Member Natalie Beyer said. “If it’s something we need to pay more attention to I would love to learn what we do and what we could do better.”
Beyer believes that a comprehensive sex education curriculum is essential for high schoolers.
“We need to break any stigma [surrounding these classes],” she said. “It’s a subject like anything else and it needs to be taught in schools.”