Sex education is taught in public schools on topics ranging from abstinence and reproduction to sexual orientation and sexually transmitted diseases. Sex education is primarily introduced in grades seven through twelve, although some schools have addressed sexuality topics as early as the fourth grade.
The following is a primer on sex education laws and public schools, including the topics typically covered and the ongoing debate about how sex ed is taught.
State Sex Education Laws
Sex education laws vary greatly among the states. Most states have laws that address some form of sexual education in schools, differing between what may or may not be taught and whether a parent may remove their child from certain sexual education programs with which they disagree.
The majority of states allow parents to remove their child or "opt out" of sexually-related instruction, while other states require affirmative parental consent for a child to take sexual education classes or participate in school-based health clinic services.
Of the states that don't currently have sexual education laws on the books, sexual education policies can typically be found in district codes or other education department manuals. Still other states allow local authorities to decide whether parents may opt-out or provide consent for a child's participation in sex education classes.
Of the states addressing sex education in schools, topics covered can include:
Because the laws vary, it's important to check the sex education laws of your particular state and/or school district.
Purpose of Sex Education Laws
Sex education in schools was meant to curb unwanted pregnancies and address public health concerns, such as teen pregnancy and STDs. Even so, the idea of teaching young people about sex in schools caused a backlash among those who believed it was best left to the parents, or who disagreed with the various sex ed programs implemented in public schools.
State laws tried to address these concerns by allowing parents to exempt their children from sex education courses or by including abstinence methods within their curriculum.
Still, some critics argue that state laws don't always solve the tension between the interests of the state and the interests of parents in what sex education programs are taught in public schools. Some have even argued that teaching about the use of contraceptives (including instruction on the proper use of a condom) may contribute to a minor's delinquency.
Pros and Cons of Teaching Sex Education in the Schools
There are several arguments for and against the teaching of sex education in schools. Supporters claim that exposure to such information, including STDs and the proper use of contraceptives, lowers teen pregnancy and STD infection rates. They would also argue that most teenagers are, or will be, sexually active and that public schools are a proper venue for sex education particularly for those children who don't have any other exposure to the topic. As such, supporters typically favor a more comprehensive approach to sex education.
Opponents of certain sex education programs in public schools, on the other hand, argue that the parents should have a say in what is taught to their children, particularly when it comes to such sensitive topics that could contradict a family's own moral or religious values. Opponents of certain sex education programs in schools typically favor a focus on teaching abstinence (waiting to have sex until marriage or a committed relationship) as the best way to protect children from the physical and psychological effects of having sex at a young age.
Abstinence-Only Sex Education
Much of the debate today is centered on whether schools should teach abstinence-only or comprehensive sex education. Those favoring an abstinence-only approach correctly point out that abstinence is the only way to prevent pregnancy and STDs with 100 percent certainty and cite to studies showing the benefits of abstinence education. They also point out the emotional complexities that often accompany an active sex life.
However, critics argue that abstinence-only programs fail to prepare those kids who do have sex and point to studies showing that inaccurate or incomplete information about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases leads to higher rates of unintended pregnancies and STDs.
Recent polls by various media, health, and social organizations have concluded that most families support the idea of teaching sex education in schools to some extent, but that there is disagreement among the topics that should be covered. Although there are still pockets of parents who adamantly reject the idea that schools teach their children anything about sex, there's generally little debate that some form of sex education should be taught.
Questions About Sex Education Law and Public Schools? Talk to an Attorney
As you can see, sex education in schools can be controversial, with concerns that certain curricula could contribute to the delinquency of a minor. This can also come up in the context of a custody dispute, as it may be one reason why parents disagree on where the child should go to school. You can learn more about the law and your rights by contacting an experienced family law attorney in your area.