In 2013, the ACLU of Kentucky released a white paper on the state of sex education in Jefferson County Public Schools, exposing a disjointed system in which nearly every high school taught a different curriculum, most consisted of an abstinence-only approach that did not cover contraception, and some used outdated and inaccurate materials. Seeing that little has changed, the organization is part of a new coalition formed to develop a strategy to implement a more effective and unified standard for comprehensive sex education across the district.
At the coalition’s first organizational meeting last week, ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project director Derek Selznick said that although the most egregious abstinence-only programs have been removed — including an exercise in which a cup passed around is spit in to represent a girl who has had sex, and teaching the unfounded claim that abortion causes breast cancer — the lack of consistency and quality of sex education from school to school has not significantly improved. While they have supported statewide reform in Frankfort for nearly a decade, the chances for that currently remain slim, so the coalition wants to find a viable path for change within Jefferson County.
“I definitely think the JCPS administration is open to having conversations about that,” said Selznick. “And that’s why we’re trying to figure out what is the best way to move forward together with the school board and the administration, rather than trying to work against them and force their hand.”
As for why different schools — even classrooms within a school — can use completely different sex-education curriculums, Suzanne Wright, the director of curriculum management at JCPS, said this stems from the KERA education reform of 1990. While the Kentucky State Board of Education has created a vague standard for sex education, the School Based Decision Making Council for each school — consisting of parents, teachers and administrators there — has the final say on specific curriculum.
“Each individual school has that jurisdiction to determine how it’s being taught,” said Wright. “The ‘what’ is determined at the state level, but the ‘how’ is determined on an individual school level. So that’s where a lot of the inconsistencies come from.”
Because of this, the prospect of requiring specific curriculum for each school appears infeasible, but Selznick said JCPS is well within its power to create new standards for all schools to meet that “would include information on not just contraception and abstinence and reproduction, but also on healthy relationships, dating violence, self-esteem, and goal-setting. Making sure that these curriculums are medically accurate, that the curriculum must be proven to do a number of different things, whether that’s delaying the onset of sexual activity, or increasing the use of contraception.”
JCPS board member Lisa Willner agreed that school districts “do have the authority to set standards that are stricter than the state standards,” and she would support a policy change requiring that teaching material must be medically accurate and current. Willner added that as long as there is an opt-out opportunity for parents, she is open to recommending a comprehensive sex education standard, as research in the field shows it is preferred by most parents and is most effective at reducing rates of teen pregnancy.
According to the most recent figures, the teen birth rate in Kentucky is 39 births per 1,000 teen girls aged 15-19 and is 35.1 in Jefferson County — both much higher than the national rate of 25.6. This rate has steadily fallen since the early 1990s both nationally and in Kentucky, with the exception of a brief uptick in the mid 2000s, which followed a flood of federal money directed toward abstinence-only programs around the country.
The interim spokeswoman for JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens said her schedule was too busy this week to discuss sex-education policy in district schools.
The new coalition seeking reform locally — which currently includes the ACLU of Kentucky, Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, and various religious leaders — has its next meeting on Aug. 11, and the group hopes more interested parents join in the discussion.