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Sex education in Arizona varies widely by district

by Kerry Fehr-Snyder - Apr. 11, 2010 12:00 AM The Arizona Republic
Sex education in Arizona schools varies widely, from describing what constitutes sexual intercourse to pushing abstinence only.

The taboo topic gets little attention, except when school districts revise their curriculum or send permission slips home to parents for children to participate in lessons.

The Arizona Board of Education does not mandate that sex education be taught in schools, but requires abstinence to be stressed when it is.

Exactly what is taught - or not - is largely left up to local school districts and their boards.

Kyrene School District, with schools in Ahwatukee, Chandler and Tempe, has one of the most comprehensive sex-education curriculums in the state. Starting next year, seventh- and eighth-graders will begin learning that condoms reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

Condoms will not be distributed to students. Their use also won't be demonstrated.

But their inclusion in the curriculum is rare.

"We're probably more out-front on this than other K-8 districts," said Sue Yost, Kyrene's health-curriculum coordinator.

The district also defines sexual intercourse in its curriculum as including anal and oral sex. The definition is needed, health educators say, because of a myth held by some students that they can't contract sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS with those methods.

Like most districts, Kyrene uses an opt-in program, which limits the number of students who receive the lesson because parents must agree to it. An opt-out program would expose more students to the curriculum.

"A parent who feels this isn't right for their child, they have to take action," said Elizabeth Nash, public-policy associate for the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health-issues think tank.

Sex-education programs grew in the 1970s out of concern over the teen-pregnancy rate and, later, AIDS. The federal government has funded abstinence-only education since the 1990s, but that approach also included inaccurate, misleading or religiously slanted information, Nash said.

"The idea is the information should be appropriate and medically accurate," she said.

Some districts avoid the issue altogether.

Deer Valley Unified School District doesn't offer a sex- education program for Grades 6-8.

"We're a very conservative district," spokeswoman Sandi Hicks said.

But health advocates contend teaching the subject is necessary to cut teen-pregnancy rates.

Arizona ranks third highest in teen-pregnancy rates, behind Nevada and New Mexico, for girls ages 15 to 19, according to 2005 statistics compiled by the National Campaign Pregnancy Report.

In 2008, 28,084 girls ages 19 and younger were pregnant, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Health officials believe it's too late to begin discussing sex education in high school.

"Then again, whenever you give people accurate information for their decision making, that's good," Kyrene's Yost said.

Health experts believe sex education in schools shouldn't replace discussions at home.

It didn't for Irene Artigas, a Chandler mother of two children who received sex education in junior high school.

"It was something I was comfortable about because we had had these conversations in our household," she said.

More on this topic

Sex ed in public schools

The state Board of Education stipulates that:

• Students must have the written permission of their parent or guardian to participate in sex-education lessons.

• Alternative lessons must be provided for students who do not enroll in elective sex education.

• Elective sex-education lessons cannot exceed the equivalent of one class period per day for one-eighth of the school year for Grades K-4.

• Elective sex-education lessons cannot exceed the equivalent of one class period per day for one-quarter of the school year for Grades 5-8.

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