Curriculum

‘Don’t Say Period’ Bill Is Latest Example of States’ Efforts to Limit Sex Education

By Elizabeth Heubeck — April 05, 2023 5 min read
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Critics are calling it the “Don’t Say Period” bill.

Florida House Bill 1069, introduced this legislative session by Republican Rep. Stan McClain, aims to restrict how, what, and when health and sex education is taught in the state’s public schools. Notably, it would ban Florida’s public school students from receiving instruction on human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases and related topics, including menstruation, before 6th grade—despite the fact that puberty and the life-altering changes that come with it start for many children well before then. If signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the measure would take effect across Florida on July 1. The bill passed the state House on March 31 and remains pending in the Florida legislature.

This legislation represents a trend, often driven by politicians, of limiting how and when schools can teach sex education. There’s been a 438 percent increase in proposed “divisive concept” bills such as parental rights and anti-gender affirming bills in the past 18 months, according to Michelle Slaybaugh, the director of social impact and strategic communications for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, or SIECUS. Such legislation is driven primarily by conservative legislatures seeking to limit topics that can be explored in public school classrooms, often including human sexuality, according to Middle Tennessee State University’s Free Speech Center.
Health experts caution that such proposed restrictions often contradict what research has shown to work to keep children adequately informed, protected, and prepared for healthy relationships in their personal lives.

“Without good sex health education, it’s less likely that people end up in healthy relationships,” said Laurie Dils, associate director for sexual health education at the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Unless we normalize talking about bodies, romantic relationships, I don’t know how we expect people to sort of magically have those conversations within the context of a healthy relationship.”

How states limit sex education

Evidence suggests that many schools are falling far short of what health educators would consider ‘good’ sex education.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, offers this straightforward and inclusive definition: “A quality sexual health education curriculum includes medically accurate, developmentally appropriate, and culturally relevant content and skills that target key behavioral outcomes and promote healthy sexual development … The curriculum is age-appropriate and planned across grade levels to provide information about health risk behaviors and experiences.”

Despite this guidance from a national health authority, states and school districts vary widely in how, when, and to what extent they implement sex education. SIECUS compiled a report, State Profiles, that provides both an overview of the number of states’ requirements around sex education. The report, available online, also features in-depth information on the mandates of each individual state. Here are some noteworthy highlights of the report:

  • 29 states and the District of Columbia require sex education in K-12 public schools.
  • 38 states require HIV education.
  • 30 states require schools to emphasize the importance of abstinence when sex education or HIV/STI instruction is provided.
  • 19 states require instruction on condoms or contraception when sex education or HIV/STI instruction is provided.
  • 13 states do not require sex education or HIV/STI instruction to be any of the following: age-appropriate, medically accurate, culturally responsive, or evidence-based/evidence-informed.
  • 13 states require sex education or HIV/STI instruction to include information on consent.
  • 10 states require culturally responsive sex education and HIV/STI instruction.
  • 9 states have policies that include affirming sexual orientation instruction on LGBTQ identities or discussion of sexual health for LGBTQ youth.
  • 6 states explicitly require instruction that discriminates against LGBTQ people.
  • 5 states have laws requiring comprehensive sex education, which is the broadest most in-depth form of sexuality instruction.

Currently, Florida does not mandate sex education in any grade.

What health experts recommend

Health experts, however, do offer a consensus on what’s developmentally appropriate.

“We’re trying to put the needs of children first,” said Kathleen Ethier, the director of the division of adolescent and school health at the CDC. “It’s important for young people to understand what is happening to their bodies at every age.”

Using this standard as a guideline, students by grade 2 should be able to use medically accurate terms, including those for genitalia, explained Ethier.

This also would mean teaching students about relevant topics, such as puberty, well before House Bill 1069 suggests. Ethier pointed out that the age at which girls are starting puberty ranges from 8 to 13, and ranges from 9 to 14 for boys.

“Girls need to be prepared for what is going to happen to them. Otherwise, it could cause a lot of trauma and fear for them,” she said.

Dils agrees. “In an effort to be protective of kids, when we keep kids ignorant, we are actually doing them a disservice,” she said. “There have been decades of research showing that sex health education is effective for a lot of different reasons, especially if it starts early and happens repeatedly over time.”

Dils quantifies what it means to start this education early. “When we talk about [sex education] instruction starting early, it’s not just instruction about sexuality,” she said. “It’s about healthy relationships, communication, setting boundaries.”

Balancing evidence-based instruction with what communities want

While Dils espouses starting these conversations with children as early as elementary school, she’s aware that not everyone is prepared to do that. “Not all communities are open to that instruction happening early. We try to find a balance in our state,” she said.

Ethier echoes the need to respect the wishes of local communities. “We [the CDC] say: Here are what the standards are. But because decisions about curriculum are made at the local level, there isn’t a way to say everyone must do this,” she said. “If you have a district that has an abstinence policy, that has to be taken into consideration.”

Health advocates may not be in a position to mandate how schools educate children on health and sex education. But that doesn’t prevent them from providing their informed perspective on the subject.

“As a psychologist who has studied adolescent health for many years, I think it is incredibly important for both boys and girls to understand the people who are going to be their friends and potentially their romantic partners,” Ethier said. “The more information, the more skills that we can give young people so that they can make healthy decisions, the better they will do during adolescence and into adulthood.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2023 edition of Education Week as ‘Don’t Say Period’ Bill Is Latest Example Of States’ Efforts to Limit Sex Education

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