September is Sexual Health Awareness Month, and the timing marks just a year before Texas school districts and charters will be required to implement the new minimum standards for health education, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.
Adopted by the State Board of Education last fall, the new TEKS include content on healthy relationships and sexual health and would introduce in middle school topics such as contraception and sexually transmitted infection prevention and treatment. The sexual health content will be delivered at pacing that is both developmentally appropriate and informed by data on interventions that achieve healthy outcomes for students.
Texas’ recent abortion legislation makes these evidence-informed education and prevention strategies more important than ever.
State statute requires schools to present an abstinence-first approach to sex ed, which makes sense — abstinence is the most effective way to prevent unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. However, data show that about 50 percent of teens become sexually active by their junior year of high school, rising to 65 percent by their senior year. These students need to have accurate information about other forms of prevention and fortunately, this is included in the standards that go into effect next year.
Unfortunately, some students will miss out on this critical content next year. Texas parents have long had the right to opt their kids out of sex education without penalty. However, in late May, the Legislature passed a policy that will require parents and guardians to actively provide written consent to opt their children into sexual health education, making Texas one of only five states to take this approach. If busy parents overlook the permission slip in the bottom of a backpack or buried in their inbox, their kids will miss out on critical sex education.
There are more than 10,000 Texas children in the child welfare system in substitute care, meaning their biological parents or kin do not have custody, and sometimes even access, while their kids are in foster care. These children tend to change schools and caregivers frequently. Given that these teens are five times as likely to experience a pregnancy by age 20 as their peers, considerations will need to be in place to ensure these students have access to sex ed in schools.
Parents are the primary educators for their children, but our recent landscape analysis of the state shows that parents are woefully underprepared for this responsibility. In fact, there is a significant gap between how comfortable parents say they feel having these critical discussions and how often children say they have had the actual conversations.
Additionally, while parents and their children agree that the most reliable sources for information about relationships and sex are at home, school and medical providers, in reality, most youth turn to Google and their friends — sources which are unreliable at best and harmful at worst.
All in all, Texas has a long way to go to make sure teens have access to the information and resources needed to ensure a safe and healthy future. To celebrate Sexual Health Awareness Month, school districts and communities should be actively preparing to implement curricula aligned to the new TEKS. And this year and next, parents should be on the lookout for those opt-in forms, lest they get lost in the bottom of a backpack.
Clayton is the executive director of the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and a member of Texas Is Ready coalition. Online at texasisready.org and txcampaign.org.