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Texas, Battling Teen Pregnancy, Recasts Sex Education Standards

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DALLAS — JR Chester became pregnant the summer before her senior year of high school. She was a bright student with good grades, gave birth, graduated, and was pregnant again by the time she entered college that fall.

She was a teenage mom—like her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Her school did not teach sexual health and contraception was a foreign word. Her sons are now teenagers.

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“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 and education organization. “Everyone was pregnant. And it just felt like, if it happens, it happens.”

While teenage pregnancies have been declining statewide and across the country in recent decades, Texas continues to have one of the highest state rates of teenage births at 22.4 births per 1,000 girls and women ages 15-19 — the lowest in Massachusetts at 6.1 . Along with Alabama, Texas has the highest rate of recurrent teenage pregnancies in the country. This fall, school districts across Texas are marking a shift to what educators are calling a “abstinence-plus” curriculum — the first time in more than 20 years that the state has revised its standards for sexual health education.

Although districts can choose their own curriculum and teach more than the state requires, the state’s minimum health standards now go beyond focusing on abstinence to terminate pregnancies and include teaching middle school students about contraception and providing additional information about contraception sexually transmitted infections, e.g. B. the human papillomavirus (HPV), which has been linked to several types of cancer.

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Previously, a 2017 report showed that 58% of Texas school districts offered sexual health education “on abstinence only,” while only 17% offered curricula that went beyond that. A quarter of schools did not offer sex education.

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

However, whether Texas teens get any sex instruction at all depends on their parents enrolling them. Where parents used to have to “opt out” of gender-sensitive portions of their children’s health education, they now have to “opt out” of having their children receive that education. That means parents have to sign and return a permit slip – a change some fear children could miss out on, less because of parental objections and more because of lost forms and language barriers.

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These changes in sex education come as the state restricts access to abortion after the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade repealed a constitutional right to abortion. Texas has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation. The question of how schools educate young people about their sexual health and development has taken on a new urgency after many state governments enacted abortion bans.

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Health advocates say many women may have no choice but to carry a pregnancy to term, and this has created a new class of haves and have-nots: those who have the knowledge, resources and agency to protect themselves from pregnancy , and refrain from those who do.

Texas is big and diverse enough to need education policies that can be adapted to remote border towns and sprawling metropolitan areas — both of which have high rates of unwanted teenage pregnancy.

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

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization, 39 states and the District of Columbia require sex education classes to provide information about abstinence, with 29 requiring that it be “emphasized.” Only 20 states and DC require classes to teach contraception information.

Under Texas law, sex education must continue to present abstinence as a “preferred choice.” When schools teach about condoms and other forms of birth control, they are required to provide what Texas calls “Human Use Reality Rates” — or, as it’s described in the medical literature, “typical use” — that demonstrate the effectiveness of those methods outside of Describe laboratory environments in detail.

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The changes taking effect this year relate primarily to whether and when a Texas student learns about certain sexual health topics. Under previous state standards, Texas schools could teach contraceptive methods beyond abstinence, but only in high school health classes, which are optional. Now, information about contraceptives, as well as more about sexually transmitted diseases, is taught in middle school health classes, which is needed.

In May, the Dallas Independent School District, one of the largest in the country, approved educational materials to meet the state’s new requirements. But school officials here wanted to do more, given the scale of the problem. Advocates say Dallas County has the highest rate of recurrent teenage pregnancies in the country.

The district’s curriculum goes beyond state minimums to include gender identity and additional contraceptive information, and a contract with Healthy Futures of Texas to teach an optional after-school program for high school students.

The previous curriculum was “very scientific” and “very dry,” said Dustin Marshall, a member of the school district board of trustees, and left out basic contraceptive information, such as how to put on a condom.

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“One of the most important ways to reduce teenage pregnancy and alleviate generational poverty due to teenage pregnancy is by teaching contraception,” he said. “Not to just assume that if you teach temperance, every child will obey. In my opinion, that is a bit too top-heavy.”

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

Under Texas law, parents not only have the ultimate say in whether their child receives sexual health education, but also what is covered in those lessons.

For nearly 30 years, school districts have been required to establish and appoint school health boards tasked with reviewing and recommending health curricula, including sexual health. Most members are required to be parents and not district employees, so sex education content can still vary widely from district to district.

Jen Biundo, senior director of policy and research at Healthy Futures of Texas, described a study she conducted by asking parents and teens who they would prefer to teach teens about sex. While parents and teens classified them differently, she said their choices are the same: schools, doctors, and parents. Health advocates point out that not all parents can or do educate their children about sex – and that many teens live in unstable situations such as foster care.

Biundo said when they asked teenagers where they learn about sex, the most common answers were “my friends and the internet.”

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

“We’re trying to end this generational curse of ignorance,” she said.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a donated non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.

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