TAMPA, Fla. — Mackenzie Valenza just started her first year in high school.
So, in addition to high school level math, science, english and history the newly minted Sarasota County freshman will also be getting a new level of sexual health education.
She welcomes it.
“I feel like we should talk about safe sex practices and how to make sure before you decide you want to engage in something like this, you’re ready,” she told us recently.
But in Florida, while laws mandating health education include teen dating and disease control, Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone discovered there’s no statewide curriculum for sex education.
As a result, what and how Florida students are taught about sexual and reproductive health in public schools is left to individual school boards to approve policies, school principals to interpret them and instructors who, ultimately, drill it all down for students.
“Sex education in Florida public schools is very inconsistent,” explained Professor Dr. Elissa Barr of the University of North Florida. Dr. Barr has been studying sex eduction policies for more than two decades.
“Because it's not consistent we have kids in our state who are receiving quality sex education and learning the skills and resources and information to really protect themselves and advocate for themselves. Then we have other counties where kids aren't getting that information,” Dr. Barr said.
A map her team created using information provided by Florida’s Department of Education, showed just how mixed sex education curriculums are across Florida with policies meeting one of three categories.
- Comprehensive sex education- includes information about human development, anatomy and reproductive health, contraception, childbirth, STDs, HIV/AIDS.
- Abstinence Plus- emphasizes the benefits of abstinence as the expected standard but also instructs students on making responsible decisions to protect their health, and transmission of diseases along with some discussion about barrier methods.
- Abstinence Only- emphasizes abstinence as the expected standard with limited discussion on other aspects of sexual health.
According to the map, the majority of Florida school districts teach abstinence plus or comprehensive sex education. There are currently (6) school districts in Florida that are funded by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to offer comprehensive sexual health education. But approximately one-third (20) of school districts in FL still identify as abstinence only school districts.
“I’m as surprised as you,” said Dr. Barr when asked about these district policies.
Studies show abstinence only instruction doesn’t prevent teens from having sex.
A 2019 youth risk behavior study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control found by 12 grade, more than half of Florida teens have already engaged in sexual intercourse.
Chlamydia rates among teens in Florida are also four times higher than the national average.
When asked about teen birth rates in Florida, “in counties where they have abstinence only policies, we do see higher teen birth rates,” explained Dr. Barr.
In Escambia County, an abstinence only school district, a 16-year-old’s pregnancy made national headlines this week after a Judge there ruled the teen isn’t “sufficiently mature” for an abortion.
While it’s unclear if the teens attends a public school, in response to questions about the district’s abstinence only curriculum, a district spokesperson responded by email, “we are respectful of parental rights as we follow state guidelines regarding health education.”
For years, Florida advocates have been pushing decision makers to adopt more comprehensive sex education statewide.
“It’s unfair that the quality of sex ed you get depends on where in Florida you are born and raised,” said Amy Weintraub of Progress Florida, a reproductive rights advocacy group.
Add in the state’s new Parental Rights in Education Law, which bans talk of gender identity among some elementary-aged students and any content deemed not age-appropriate, and advocates fear lessons on sexual and reproductive health in Florida will suffer.
“A lot of teachers are really pulling back,” said Takeate King Pang with the Women’s Foundation of Florida.
Last month, the school board in Miami Dade first approved, then rejected, then approved again a new series of sex ed textbooks after a small group of citizens questioned if the middle and high school level books violated the state’s new law.
Alex Serrano, who represents the Miami Dade chapter for County Citizens Defending Freedom, a group largely behind book challenges in school libraries, spoke on behalf of citizens concerned the new textbooks violated the state’s new law.
“Much of the content is not age appropriate, usurps parental rights and is scientifically not inaccurate and not factual,” he told the board at the time,” he said during the school board meeting.
Back in Sarasota County, last month school board members approved this year’s health education curriculum which, for high schoolers will include instruction on avoiding pregnancy, STD’s and the consequences of sexual relationships.
But during the same board meeting, the district’s superintendent told board members about the district’s standard for sex education in schools, “we have chosen abstinence,” said Dr. Brennan Asplen. [A district spokesperson would not elaborate or explain Dr. Asplen’s statement. Instead we were directed to the district’s approved plan.]
Before Mackenzie Valenza gets any high school sex ed, her mom will have to sign a form allowing her to participate. The district adopted opt-in policies a few years ago. If students don’t have a signed form turned in, the default will be for students not to get any sexual health instruction at all at school.
Valenza’s mom called it “tragic,” and her 14-year-old daughter called it “disappointing.”
“High school is meant to prepare you for adulthood. All your teachers will tell you that we’re preparing you for adulthood, we’re preparing you for adulthood. Ok, but are you preparing me for that part of it,” she said.