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Matt Robinson

SBOE updates sex ed curriculum

All things considered, especially the past history of the State Board of Education and its shenanigans, this could have been worse. It’s not great, but the potential for disaster was monumentally high.

The Texas State Board of Education gave preliminary approval this week to a sex education policy that includes teaching middle schoolers about birth control beyond abstinence — its first attempt to revise that policy since 1997.

In jam-packed meetings held Wednesday through Friday, the 15-member Republican-dominated board came one step closer to revising minimum standards for what Texas students learn about health and sex. It is expected to take a final vote in November.

The board voted to teach seventh and eighth grade students to “analyze the effectiveness and the risks and failure rates … of barrier protection and other contraceptive methods in the prevention of STDs, STIs and pregnancy,” in addition to the importance of abstinence. Currently, learning about birth control methods beyond abstinence is only a requirement in high school, where health education is an optional course.

But the board rejected proposals to teach middle school students about the importance of consent or teach any students to define gender identity and sexual orientation.

[…]

Over the last several months, panels of educators and medical professionals formulated recommendations to overhaul the health and sex education policies.

Board members clashed on several edits to those recommendations, including whether to include explicit reference to sexual orientation and gender identity. On Thursday and Friday, Ruben Cortez, a Brownsville Democrat, unsuccessfully proposed teaching middle schoolers and high schoolers to define sexual orientation and gender identity. He said the proposals would help LGBTQ students, who studies show have a higher rate of suicide attempts in part due to discrimination.

“One of my children this summer came out to us and the fact that she had to bottle that in for years thinking that we wouldn’t accept her,” he said, getting choked up as he spoke. “It’s difficult to imagine what other students who don’t live in a tolerant house would go through if we don’t insert language like this to help our students.”

Most Republicans on the board opposed his proposal, saying they would rather not include it in the minimum standards schools are required to teach. Instead, they said, they would rather let local school districts vote to add LGBTQ issues to their own health education policies, since state law gives them that flexibility. Matt Robinson, from Friendswood, was the sole Republican who voted with Democrats to add the language Friday.

“I would like to see this left up to being a community decision,” said Pat Hardy, a Fort Worth Republican.

“I don’t think at the high school level we can afford to be cryptic with regards to our youth,” said Marisa Perez-Diaz, a Converse Democrat. “Identity exists. We need to talk about it regardless of one’s sensitivity and discomfort.”

Most Republicans also opposed Cortez’s proposals Thursday and Friday to teach middle and high school students to “explain the importance of treating all people with dignity and respect regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Instead, they approved teaching students to prevent “all forms of bullying and cyberbullying such as emotional, physical, social and sexual.” Schools can choose to include bullying as a result of sexual orientation and gender identity in those lessons, Republicans said.

On Wednesday night, board members battled over whether to teach sixth graders the definition of consent as it relates to physical intimacy and to “explain why all physical contact should be consensual.” Republicans said consent was a legally murky concept and instead prioritized students learning to be able to say no to unwanted approaches.

“In my opinion, refusal skills, personal boundaries, personal privacy covers this area at this age,” said Marty Rowley, an Amarillo Republican. “Eleven and 12 is too young in my opinion.”

I’d argue that stuff needs to be discussed from the time the kid is in preschool. Which, in a good preschool, it often is. It’s basic bodily autonomy, as in no one has the right to touch you if you don’t want them to. I don’t think it gets all that more complicated when you’re talking about touch in an explicitly sexual context. I can understand why people may be uncomfortable with that, but that’s just too bad. This was a significant missed opportunity.

Same thing with sexual orientation and gender identity. Perhaps what some people fail to understand is that the kids themselves are a lot more comfortable with that subject than many adults are. And kids who are gay or trans or nonbinary generally know who they are by middle school. We can’t choose to not engage with them on the subject. It’s alienating and insulting to them. Leaving it up to the locals may sound like a reasonable compromise, except that we know some school districts are hostile to LGBTQ students, and could not be trusted to set this material themselves. Some minimum level of standard is needed, and the SBOE whiffed on it. Basically, what was needed in both of these cases was honest, factual information, which would benefit all of the students. This change will not provide it to them, and that is a significant failure on the SBOE’s part.

The good news is the baby step away from abstinence-only education, which is a travesty with harmful repercussions. It’s not enough, but any movement in that direction is welcome. If we can take advantage of the opportunity we have this fall to elect some better members to the SBOE, maybe we can take more steps in that direction, and get on the right track with these other matters. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.