Sex ed: What kids are - and aren't - learning

Sex ed: What kids are - and aren't - learning
Published: May. 6, 2015 at 5:58 PM EDT|Updated: May. 7, 2015 at 2:05 AM EDT
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - A survey of local school districts in Southwest Ohio shows disparities in what kids learn about sex and when they learn it.

Ohio has no model curriculum for sex education, leaving decisions up to local districts.

Students from the University of Cincinnati surveyed 56 school districts in Butler, Clermont, Hamilton and Warren counties. They asked six questions about the schools' sex education curriculum, which is public record.

Only 18 districts responded with information regarding their curriculum. Several declined to share their information with one citing the "sensitivity" of the subject.

Mobile users: Click here to see a district-by-district map of sex ed curriculum.

Curriculum differences

The students grouped the curricula into three categories: abstinence-centered (or abstinence-only), abstinence-plus and comprehensive. Abstinence-centered curricula teach that abstinence is the only effective method of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unplanned pregnancies, while abstinence-plus curricula emphasize abstinence, but provide information about contraceptives and STDs. Comprehensive curricula may cover abstinence, but have a greater focus on contraceptives, STDs and pregnancy prevention.

According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a national non-profit educational foundation, comprehensive curricula are considered to be the most medically accurate and age appropriate form of sex education.

Half of the districts that responded reported teaching a comprehensive sex education curriculum. Six reported teaching an abstinence-centered curriculum, and three said they teach abstinence-plus.


Kings School District teaches an abstinence-focused curriculum, according to health teacher Scott Downer.

"We mention contraception as a way to prevent pregnancy," Downer said, but the school stresses no contraceptives are foolproof.

"There are always dangers involved," he said. "The only 100 percent sure way to avoid pregnancy and STDs is to be abstinent."

Age differences

The disparities in sex education don't stop there. Where children go to school not only determines what they will learn but when they will learn it. Seven districts don't start teaching sex education until high school. Others begin much earlier; at Forest Hills, students learn about the human body in the third grade.

The health department chair for the Finneytown school district said she agrees with the earlier timeline even though her district waits until high school to teach sex education.

"I believe it would be beneficial if it were taught in smaller doses to the younger grades, as our youth are becoming more aware of sexual practices at a younger age," Heather Howard said.

State Law

The significant differences in sex education among districts exist because the Ohio Revised Code says the state board of education is not permitted to "adapt or revise" any education standards "in the area of health."

"We do not have health (including sex education) standards or model curriculum," said John Charlton, associate director of communications for the Ohio Department of Education, in an email. "That is all local control." This leaves health education instruction up to each school district and its staff.

That doesn't sit well with the vice president of education of Planned Parenthood in Southwest Ohio.

"It [Ohio Law] simply states that the decision to teach (or not to teach) sexuality education is up to the school districts," said Leslie Mitchell. "There is also no direction given as to what must be covered. Many districts leave the decision up to the individual school principals."

An expert in education law says the state may be afraid to impose guidelines on sex education because of its inherent controversial subject matter.

"Sexual education is obviously very deeply rooted in religious issues," said Elizabeth Thoman, an academic research assistant to University of Cincinnati Law School. "Catholics teach one thing; Jews teach another. So I think that is where that hesitation comes from."

While the Ohio Board of Education cannot set any standard for schools' sex education curricula, the state still imposes some rules. The non-profit Guttmacher Institute, which focuses on reproductive health worldwide, said Ohio is one of 22 states that mandates sex education, and one of 25 that says abstinence must be stressed.

"In theory [having no standards] is fine, but what happens when half of a school class is pregnant?" Thoman said.

Education Gap

Despite these rules, school districts vary greatly in how they teach sex education. Jennifer Mooney, Director of Reproductive Health and Wellness at the Hamilton County Department of Health, said students get different information depending on where they live.

"It [the law] totally creates a gap," Mooney said. "So offering it to some and not all students does our community, as a whole, a disservice."

Five of the school districts said they bring in outside organizations to teach some or all of the sex education curriculum. Groups include Marriage Works Ohio, Maximum Freedom, YWCA, the Hamilton County Public Health and Warren County Abuse & Rape Crisis Shelter. The organizations take different approaches to sex education and cover different areas of information.

Hamilton County Public Health (HCPH), upon request, will visit classrooms and provide prevention-based information. Julie Dietrich, a health and physical education teacher at Winton Woods, invites the HCPH to talk to her high school class about safe sex. Dietrich said the HCPH gives each student a small pre-wrapped package that contains an info card, a business card and one condom.

Mike Samet, public information officer from HCPH, said the program aims to educate students on how they can protect themselves during sexual activity. The speakers provide students with facts and information about the risks associated with sexual activity. They show them how to properly use a condom. The focus is on disease and pregnancy prevention instead of an abstinence-only approach.

The health department's prevention-based programs work best, Mooney said.

"Our kids need to be armed with information," she said. "They need to be equipped to know that there are the possible consequences of [sexual activity]. There are good things about it, and there are also bad things."

The outside program most of the surveyed districts report using is Maximum Freedom. The group's website said it seeks to "empower students with medically accurate sexual health and relationship education to achieve a lifetime of Maximum Freedom from unhealthy and unwanted consequences."

Not only does the information students get differ from district to district, but sometimes it differs year to year. Goshen High School principal Nick Inabnitt said instructors who teach sex education can change annually.

"(Instructors) want to put their own flavors in things."

What Students Learn Outside School

While sex can be an uncomfortable subject, some educators believe that in today's media environment, discussing it with kids is imperative.

"I do think that teenagers today are much more aware of sex than students in the past because they're inundated with that message," Downer said.

While students may be aware of abstinence as an option, some say they need more information. "With movies and pop stars doing stuff like that, [abstinence] probably wouldn't be accepted (as the only option) by teenagers," said Emily Oliger, a ninth-grader at Kings High School.

Amy Holbrook, prevention education coordinator at Warren County Abuse and Rape Crisis Shelter, said sex education is more important than ever.

"[Students] are inundated with these images and messages on a daily basis, and it's our job to give them the education and empowerment to combat that," Holbrook said. "I believe that a lot of parents nowadays are relying on social media, on the Internet, and on the schools to be the teacher. It (sex education) used to be addressed at home, and I feel like it's not so much any more."

But some parents say with the great disparities in what students learn about sex, they need to get more involved at home.

"I think sex education is as important as drug abuse education in many ways," said Heather Cooper, parent of an Oak Hills student. "It's a parent's job to teach this, but many are uncomfortable, so nothing is said. But if we don't teach it, who will?"

[Read: State-by-State sex education policies]

Jamie Gregory, Annie Dennis, Faith Tucker, Victoria Bower, Kinsley Slife, Zachary Mueller, William Wolkolf, Joanna Branch contributed to this story.

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