When Asheville resident Kelley Johnson’s two children were younger, the information they received in the Asheville City Schools’ sex ed program “was a joke,” Johnson says.
Johnson, who holds a Ph.D. in human sexuality and a master’s degree in public health, teaches sex ed at charter and private schools in and around Asheville.
One of the basic tenets of sex education, Johnson says, is to avoid using euphemisms. The Asheville Middle School coaches charged with teaching the subject apparently didn’t get that memo. “The coach told the boys to put the helmet on their soldier before they went to war,” she says. “Which equates a condom as a helmet, their penis as a soldier and sex as a battle.”
While parents of students in the Buncombe County Schools report a higher level of confidence in the sex ed their kids are receiving, the subject remains controversial. That’s unfortunate, say experts in the field, because sex ed is taught alongside a host of other health topics that otherwise don’t have a place in the curriculum.
“There is so much stigma and fear around sex ed,” says Julia Considine, an Asheville-based health education consultant. Considine’s master’s thesis about the implementation of health education standards in North Carolina schools recently won a UNC Graduate School Impact Award for exceptional research that has had direct benefits in the state.
Just last month, conservative activists in North Carolina organized a “Sex Ed Sit-Out” to protest how sex education is being taught in public schools. That protest notwithstanding, “Parents want students to learn about comprehensive sex ed in schools,” says Considine. Statistics back her up: A 2009 survey from the Gillings School of Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill found that over 90 percent of parents want sex education taught in schools.
“Over the last 100 years [of sex ed] there has been an average of 2 percent parent pushback,” says Considine. “But those are the voices we hear.”
Some of that resistance comes from a lack of understanding about what sex education really is, she says.
But no matter how parents feel about sex education’s place in the classroom, many students begin having sex in high school, and some start even younger. According to the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, data collected from North Carolina high school students show that 44 percent of high school students reported having had sexual intercourse. In 2013, the same survey of North Carolina’s middle school students found that 11 percent had had sexual intercourse.
In Buncombe County in 2016, there were 164 teen pregnancies among 15- to 19-year-old girls, or 23.9 per 1,000 in that age group. That’s slightly higher than the nationwide average of 22.3 per 1,000 of girls ages 15-19.
Before 2010, the name of the sex ed game in North Carolina was abstinence from sexual activity. With the passage in 2009 of the Healthy Youth Act, classroom sex education became, at least in theory, objective and based on peer-reviewed scientific research.
While still emphasizing abstinence, the change ushered in more comprehensive sex education beginning with the 2010-11 school year.
The state’s program teaches that avoiding sexual activity is the best and most effective means of preventing sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy. But instruction also includes medically accurate information on all FDA-approved contraceptives, characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships, and the effects of culture, media and family values on decision-making. It also teaches students how to recognize sexual harassment and understand sexually transmitted infections such as human immunodeficiency virus and human papillomavirus.
In addition to reproductive health and safety, the state’s Healthful Living Essential Standards cover the risks of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs; stress management; interpersonal communication; healthy relationships; mental and emotional health; nutrition and physical activity.
The standards were created to provide guidance to educators, but as Considine discovered during her research, their implementation varies widely among school districts. “We have a comprehensive sex ed policy in North Carolina,” says Considine. “But what I found was that at the local level there wasn’t a real understanding about how to implement the standards or the Healthy Youth Act thoroughly or consistently.”
Sex education is most likely to be implemented according to state policy when a healthful living coordinator is involved, Considine’s research revealed. At Buncombe County Schools, the district employs Debbie Bryant in that role, as well as three dedicated reproductive health educators, who teach all reproductive health units in every county school.
“We start fourth grade with a gender-separated hygiene class,” says Bryant. “The students are taught what to expect and what changes might occur in their body.”
In sixth grade, she continues, the standards require that students learn about the gestational period of a baby and how babies are made. “We don’t teach them how to have sex,” explains Bryant, “but we talk about how sex does take place. We use medically accurate terminology. They see scientific diagrams of reproductive organs.”
Seventh- and eighth-grade students learn about sexually transmitted infections, cybersafety, sexting and the difficulties of teenage pregnancy. “We talk about boundaries and how to resist,” says Bryant. “We talk about good decision-making skills.”
In ninth grade, students learn about FDA-approved contraceptives, personal safety, healthy relationships and sex trafficking.
Emily Balcken’s oldest daughter is in seventh grade at Cane Creek Middle School, part of the Buncombe County Schools system. She says her experience with Buncombe County’s sex education program has been a positive one. “[Sex ed is] an opt-out system, which I think is a good thing,” she says. “They send the letter home and only if you want to opt out do you need to send it back. I have been 100 percent for anything they would teach at school,” says Balcken.
Bryant reports that Buncombe County Schools have a 98.5 percent sex ed participation rate. “We do have parents who choose for their sons or daughters not to participate,” she notes. “We feel that they know their child better than anyone else, but we do try to stress that what [their child] learns in our classes is factual information, but what they talk about on the bus or playground or around the cafeteria table may not be.”
In 2010 — the year the healthful living standards were implemented — 275 girls aged 15-19 had a pregnancy in Buncombe County. By 2016, that number had dropped to 164. “Since we have had comprehensive teaching standards, we have seen pregnancy rates drop drastically,” says Bryant.
Need for guidance
Unlike the county system, Asheville City Schools does not have a dedicated professional responsible for health education. City schools spokesperson Ashley-Michelle Thublin says the money previously used to fund the healthful living coordinator has been reallocated for the system’s district safety officer. That position is tasked with safety policies and procedures, bullying and harassment, school discipline, and policies for school suspensions and expulsion.
“We have attempted to find additional funding sources to replace the healthful living coordinator, including grants,” Thublin wrote in an email.
In addition to her job as a health education consultant, Considine is also a mom, with two boys at Asheville Middle School. “I love Asheville City Schools,” she says. “I’m so grateful for everything my kids have received. But at the district level, there could be more organized support for communicating what the Healthy Youth Act says and translating that for the health and [physical education] teachers to reduce confusion around what they are supposed to be teaching.”
Ameena Batada, associate professor of health and wellness at UNC Asheville and the parent of a sixth- and eighth-grader at Asheville Middle School, serves on the Asheville City Schools Foundation board. Batada says that the more sexual health education is taught in schools, the better — “as long as it is accurate and inclusive. Sometimes it seems to be less than that, which is where my concern is.”
Batada stresses that a lot of people at Asheville City Schools care deeply about making sure students get accurate sex education in accordance with the state requirements. At the same time, she adds, “The resources are inadequate. If there was more clarity on what had to be taught and less fear that there would be some kind of repercussion for providing additional background context and information, then maybe the schools would feel a little bit more free to communicate with students.”
Bryant, among other parents and educators interviewed, expresses concern that sex education ends in ninth grade. “Unfortunately, in North Carolina we only have one required health and PE class for graduation,” she says.
Chad Noteboom has boys in fifth, ninth and 12th grades at W.D. Williams Elementary School and Owen High School, both part of the Buncombe County school district. He agrees that sex education should extend past ninth grade: “As a parent, I think it would be good to go back over [sex ed] a couple more times and maybe as a part of a graduation requirement. Kids’ lives change so much between being a freshman and a senior.”
Balcken also thinks sex education deserves more attention in the classroom. “There isn’t enough time devoted to it. Sexual health is a part of overall health, and the fact that we have one semester of PE and health required for high schoolers is kind of sad,” she says. “I think not only does [sex ed] have to be comprehensive, it has to be continuous. Not teaching sex ed past ninth grade is a disservice to our youth.”
“Health is not a core class,” explains Considine. “It’s not a part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, so it’s not tested for. As a nation, we don’t prioritize health, so the education system doesn’t either.”
More than sex
Both Considine and Bryant point out a common misperception about sex education: that it’s just about sex. In actuality, comprehensive sex education covers a wide umbrella of health topics.
Considine also points out that funding comprehensive sex education is fiscally responsible. “Each unplanned teen pregnancy costs taxpayers $42,000 per year. In Buncombe County that adds up to $7 million,” she says. The costs come from public support such as Medicaid and food stamps, she adds.
At the end of the day, says Considine, “Sex education is about health. It’s about supporting students with healthy behaviors and giving them the skills and tools to make healthy decisions.”