WHAT IS SEXUAL HEALTH EDUCATION?
Sex education is the provision of information about bodily development, sex, sexuality, and relationships, along with skills-building to help young people communicate about and make informed decisions regarding sex and their sexual health. Sex education should occur throughout a student’s grade levels, with information appropriate to students’ development and cultural background. It should include information about puberty and reproduction, abstinence, contraception and condoms, relationships, sexual violence prevention, body image, gender identity and sexual orientation. It should be taught by trained teachers. Sex education should be informed by evidence of what works best to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, but it should also respect young people’s right to complete and honest information. Sex education should treat sexual development as a normal, natural part of human development.
WHY IS SEXUAL HEALTH EDUCATION IMPORTANT TO YOUNG PEOPLE’S HEALTH AND WELL-BEING?
Comprehensive sexual health education covers a range of topics throughout the student’s grade levels. Along with parental and community support, it can help young people:
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY ABOUT EFFECTIVE SEX EDUCATION?
WHAT’S WRONG WITH ABSTINENCE-ONLY-UNTIL-MARRIAGE PROGRAMS?
HOW IS THE CONTENT OF A STUDENT’S SEX EDUCATION DECIDED?
Many factors help shape the content of a student’s sex education. These include:
With thousands of school districts around the nation, students’ experiences can vary drastically from district to district and school to school.
WHAT ARE FEDERAL, STATE, AND LOCAL STRUCTURES THAT AFFECT SEX EDUCATION?
In the United States, education is largely a state and local responsibility, as dictated by the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This amendment states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Because the Constitution doesn’t specifically mention education, the federal government does not have any direct authority regarding curriculum, instruction, administration, personnel, etc. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Education was created. While this move centralized federal efforts and responsibilities into one office, it did not come with an increase in federal jurisdiction over the educational system.
The U.S. Department of Education currently has no authority over sexual health education. However, there have been federal funds allocated, primarily through the Department of Health and Human Services that school systems and community-based agencies have used throughout the last three decades to provide various forms of sex education.
In 2010, two streams of funding became available for evidence-based sex education interventions.
In addition, in 2013, CDC/Division of School Health issued a request for proposals to fund State Education Agencies (SEAs) and Large Municipal Education Agencies (LEAs) to implement Exemplary Sexual Health Education (ESHE). ESHE is defined as a systematic, evidence-informed approach to sexual health education that includes the use of grade-specific, evidence-based interventions, but also emphasizes sequential learning across elementary, middle, and high school grade levels.
States may accept PREP, TPPI, or Title V funds. Many states accept funds for both abstinence-only programs and evidence-based interventions. In 2013, 19 SEAs and 17 LEAs received five year cooperative agreements from CDC/DASH to implement ESHE within their school systems.
Each state has a department of education headed by a chief state school officer, more commonly known as the Superintendent of Public Instruction or the Commissioner of Education (titles vary by state). State departments of education are generally responsible for disbursing state and federal funds to local school districts, setting parameters for the length of school day and year, teacher certification, testing requirements, graduation requirements, developing learning standards and promoting professional development. Generally, the chief state school officer is appointed by the Governor, though in a few states they are elected.
State departments of education may also have Standards which provide benchmark measures that define what students should know and be able to do at specified grade levels. These sometimes, but not always, address sexual health education. For instance, Connecticut and New Jersey have standards similar to the National Sexuality Education Standards in place and which address reproduction, prevention of STIs and pregnancy, and healthy relationships. A number of other states have general health education standards which do not directly address sexual health, while others make mention of HIV/STI prevention and abstinence but don’t demand the most thorough instruction in sexual health.
Local school boards are responsible for ensuring that each school in their district is in compliance with the laws and policies set by the state and federal government. Local school board also have broad decision and rule-making authority with regards to the operations of their local school district, including determining the school district budget and priorities; curriculum decisions such as the scope and sequence of classroom content in all subject areas; and textbook approval authority. 
Typically, school boards set the sex education policy for a school district. They must follow state law. Some school boards provide guidelines or standards, while others select specific curricula for schools to deliver. Most school boards are advised by School Health Advisory Councils (SHACs). SHAC members are individuals who represent the community and who provide advice about health education.
HOW CAN I WORK FOR COMPREHENSIVE SEXUAL HEALTH EDUCATION FOR STUDENTS IN MY COMMUNITY?
There are a number of ways to help ensure that students get the information they need to live healthy lives, build healthy relationships, and take personal responsibility for their health and well being.
Young people have the right to lead healthy lives. As they develop, we want them to take more and more control of their lives so that as they get older, they can make important life decisions on their own. The balance between responsibility and rights is critical because it sets behavioral expectations and builds trust while providing young people with the knowledge, ability, and comfort to manage their sexual health throughout life in a thoughtful, empowered and responsible way. But responsibility is a two-way street. Society needs to provide young people with honest, age-appropriate information they need to live healthy lives, and build healthy relationships, and young people need to take personal responsibility for their health and well being. Advocates must also work to dismantle barriers to sexual health, including poverty and lack of access to health care.
Emily Bridges, MLS, and Debra Hauser, MPH
Advocates for Youth © May 2014
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