Texas, Battles Teen Pregnancy, Recasts Sex Education Standards

DALLAS – JR Chester became pregnant the summer before her senior year of high school. A bright student with good grades, she gave birth, graduated, and was pregnant again when she got to college that fall.

She was a teenage mother—like her mother, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother. Sexual health was not taught at her school, and contraception was a foreign concept. His sons are now teenagers.

“If you don’t know your options, you don’t have any,” said Chester, now program director of Healthy Futures of Texas, a nonprofit sexual health advocacy and education organization. “Everybody was pregnant. And that’s what it felt like: when it happens, it happens.

While teen pregnancies have declined statewide and nationwide in recent decades, Texas continues to have the highest statewide teen pregnancy rate, with 22.4 births for every 1,000 girls and women ages 15-19. – Lowest, 6.1 in Massachusetts. Along with Alabama, Texas has the nation’s highest rate of teen pregnancy recurrence. This fall, school districts across Texas are marking a change to what educators call an “abstinence plus” curriculum — the first time the state has revised its standards for sexual health education in more than 20 years. Is.

Although districts can choose their own curriculum and teach more than the state requires, the state’s minimum health standards now go beyond a focus on contraception to prevent pregnancy and include middle school children. This includes teaching about contraceptives and giving additional information about preventing sexually transmitted infections, such as human papillomavirus (HPV), which is linked to many cancers.

Previously, a 2017 report found that 58% of Texas schools offered “abstinence-only” sexual health education, while only 17% offered curricula that went beyond that. A quarter of schools did not offer sexuality education.

Research shows that sex education programs that teach about contraception are effective in increasing contraceptive use and even delaying sexual activity among young people. Abstinence-focused education programs, on the other hand, have not been shown to be particularly effective in preventing adolescent sexual activity.

Whether Texas teens receive any sex aids, though, depends on whether their parents sign them up. While parents previously had to “opt out” of the sex-ed portions of their children’s health classes, they now have to “opt in” for their children to receive these lessons. This means that parents must sign and return a permission slip – a change children can lose not so much because of parental objections, but because of missing forms and language barriers.

The changes to sex education come as the state blocked access to abortion after a Supreme Court decision was overturned in June. Roe v. Wadewhich has guaranteed the constitutional right to abortion. Texas has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. The question of how schools educate young people about their sexual health and development has taken on new urgency now that many state governments have banned abortion.

Many women have no choice but to carry pregnancies to term, health advocates say, and this has given rise to a new class of pregnant and non-pregnant: those who have no choice but to protect themselves from pregnancy. For those who have the knowledge, resources and agency, and those who don’t.

Texas is large and diverse enough to require education policies that can be adopted for remote border towns and sprawling metropolitan areas—both of which have high rates of unintended teen pregnancy.

In 2019, the Texas Board of Education began rewriting health education standards that had been in place since the 1990s. It maintained standards that stated “there are risks associated with sexual activity and abstinence from sexual activity is the only 100% effective way to avoid risks.”

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization, of the 39 states plus the District of Columbia that mandate that sex education classes provide information about abstinence, 29 of them require it to be “stressful.” “should be a victim of Only 20 states and DC require that classes provide information about contraception.

Under Texas law, sex ed must still offer abstinence as a “preferred choice.” When schools teach about condoms and other forms of contraception, they must provide what Texas calls “the actual rate of human use”—or, as it’s described in the medical literature, “General Use” — which describes the effectiveness of these methods outside of laboratory settings.

The changes implemented this year primarily address when Texas students learn about specific sexual health topics. Under the state’s previous standards, Texas schools could teach birth control methods beyond abstinence, but only in high school health classes, which are optional. Now, information about contraceptives, as well as more information about STIs, is taught in middle school health classes, which are needed.

In May, the Dallas Independent School District, one of the nation’s largest, adopted lesson materials to meet new state requirements. But school officials here wanted to do more, given the scope of the problem. Advocates say Dallas County has one of the highest teen pregnancy recidivism rates in the country.

The district’s curriculum goes beyond the state minimum and includes additional information about gender identity and contraception, as well as a contract with Healthy Futures of Texas to provide after-school electives for high school students. Program can be taught.

Dustin Marshall, a member of the school district’s board of trustees, said the previous curriculum was “too scientific” and “too dry,” and left out basic information about contraception, such as how to wear condoms.

“One of the primary ways to reduce teen pregnancy and eliminate racial poverty from teen pregnancy is to teach contraception,” she said. “Just don’t assume that if you teach abstinence, every child will obey. From my perspective, that’s a bit in the sand.

Some critics say the state’s standards, while an improvement, are insufficient when it comes to consent and LGBTQ+ issues, including gender identity. The state board requires that schools teach about healthy relationships and setting personal boundaries for sexual activity.

Under Texas law, parents have the final say not only about whether their child receives sexual health education, but what those lessons include.

One photo shows a wall full of pamphlets.
Pamphlets about sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy prevention are part of the materials available at the Dallas office of Healthy Futures of Texas, a statewide nonprofit sexual health advocacy and education organization.(Emery Hewittman/KHN)

For nearly 30 years, school districts have been required to create and appoint school health advisory councils, which are tasked with reviewing and recommending health curricula, including on sexual health. Most members must be parents and not district employees, so the content of sex-ed classes can still vary widely by district.

Jane Biondo, senior director of policy and research at Healthy Futures of Texas, described a study in which she asked parents and teens who they would prefer to teach teens about sex. While parents and teenagers ranked them differently, he said their choices were the same: school, doctor and parent. Health advocates point out that not all parents can or will teach their children about sex — and that many young people end up in unstable situations like foster care.

Biondo said that when he asked teens where they learned about sex, the top answers were “my friends and the Internet.”

In fact, some parents, especially those who were teenage mothers themselves, may not know about or have access to birth control. “Where should parents get knowledge?” said Chester. “Because they came from a school system that didn’t teach sex education, and suddenly they know what to teach their kids.”

He said that we are trying to end the scourge of illiteracy from generation to generation.

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