Arizona ranks third worst in the nation when it comes to comprehensive sex education curriculum, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2016 School Health Profile.
The state does not have a law that requires schools to teach sex education or sexually transmitted disease education, but it does mandate that any sex ed curriculum adopted must be age-appropriate and abstinence-based, which is a departure from abstinence-only.
Arizona’s law also states that the instruction cannot promote a “homosexual lifestyle” or portray “homosexuality as a positive alternative lifestyle.”
The CDC has 19 sex education topics they believe are critical to adolescent health. These topics include communication and negotiation skills, how to maintain a healthy relationship, how to obtain and correctly use a condom and HIV/Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) prevention.
Only 14.5 percent of secondary schools in Arizona taught the CDC’s 19 topics in grades nine through 12. The state with the highest percentage of schools teaching the topics is New Jersey with 84.4 percent.
In New Jersey, sex-ed curriculum is state-mandated. All students are required to participate in comprehensive health and physical education, which includes a sex education component. They must provide medically-accurate and inclusive information. They stress abstinence, but it is not an abstinence-only curriculum.
New Jersey also requires schools to discuss sexual orientation. They also teach dating violence, consent and contraception. Sex ed is an opt-out course in New Jersey meaning parents may provide a written request to opt their children out of the sex-education portion, unlike the laws in Arizona.
Currently, Arizona has an opt-in approach that can be chaotic because it can be difficult to get all parents to sign up, especially if they don’t know it is offered, so some students miss out on sex education that’s being offered.
According to the Office of Adolescent Health, New Jersey has one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates. New Jersey ranked 47th in teen birth rates among females 15-19 years old with one representing the highest rate and 51 representing the lowest. In the same year, Arizona was ranked 15th in teen birth rates, higher than the national average.
Anna Keene, a senior at the University of Arizona, attended a study abroad program where she traveled throughout Europe learning about human sexuality.
“The Netherlands has comprehensive sex ed all throughout childhood and developing, and it’s age-appropriate,” she said. “So they start talking about consent in kindergarten.”
The Netherlands has one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the world with only four teen births per 1,000 women aged 15-19. The United States has one of the highest of westernized countries with 21 teen births per 1,000 women.
Information and statistics coming from the Netherlands and other European countries helped local non-profits and community leaders involved with the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition model their curriculum and workshops.
Dutch children begin receiving what they call “sexuality education” at age 4 and continue learning about self-image and gender stereotypes at 8. By 11, Dutch children learn about sexual orientation and contraception. This has led to young adults in the Netherlands choosing to have sex later than other European and American teens.
With the current state of Arizona’s sex-education curriculum and pregnancy statistics, some school districts are looking for innovative ways to teach sex ed to their students while getting parents and educators involved.
In 2015, Tucson Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition was awarded $4.3 million to enhance sex education programming in the Sunnyside Unified School District. The coalition is the mobilization of four local non-profits — Child & Family Resources, Teen Outreach Pregnancy Services, Planned Parenthood Arizona and the Sunnyside Unified School District.
The program focuses on skills for negotiating, prevention, self-respect and healthy relationships and boundaries for middle school and high school students, grades 7, 8 and 9.
According to the Child & Family Resources’ website, their goal is to implement “effective, evidence-based, medically accurate, responsible relationships and sexuality education to middle and high school students in the Sunnyside district.”
The teen pregnancy rate has dropped 16 percent statewide over the past seven years, but the Sunnyside district still has three times the national pregnancy rate.
“We’re trying to get girls who are pregnant or are parenting to finish high school,” says Eugenie Favela, assistant superintendent for the Sunnyside district. “We’re not rewarding them for being pregnant, we’re trying to intervene.”
Many factors are responsible for higher teen pregnancy rates in South Tucson, says Maria Rodriguez, Planned Parenthood Teenage Pregnancy Prevention Coordinator.
“You get people who are honestly engaging in the exact same behaviors as any other subpopulation in the school district except the difference is access to information, healthcare and knowing what to do with that,” Rodriguez says.
The Community Action Board has been responsible for engaging the community and recruiting people for workshops that they hold to educate students, parents and educators in the community and school district.
Rodriguez helped facilitate the workshops and curriculum as part of the coalition.
“Parents should be teaching their kids about sexuality, but not all of them do,” Rodriguez says. “Planned Parenthood was able to provide a sex ed curriculum that works instead of starting from scratch. We’ve been tasked on focusing on the community and shifting the narrative in families and neighborhoods.”
Maria Perez is a mother of four daughters who attend school within the Sunnyside district. She attended workshops with her family, and applauds the coalition’s work.
“They helped us so much, and the bond of trust in our family has strengthened as a result,” Perez said at a February Sunnyside district board meeting. “What I liked is that they were not graphic or designed to scare parents. Instead, they covered basic but very important topics, giving us a chance to reflect and communicate as parents and daughters.
“They opened up my way of thinking completely as a mother. I actually shed my shame and embarrassment.”
Despite the positive feedback, the Trump Administration cut the funding for the program in October of 2017. Now the coalition must figure out how to move forward after they lose the final two years of funding at the end of June.
The grant was part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program developed by the Obama Administration. This cut will affect 81 sites nationwide.
The Sunnyside K-12 comprehensive sex education curriculum is modeled after the Netherlands curriculum.
“The program will continue the way we’ve been doing it until that K-12 is all the way established throughout all the grades,” Fordney says. “It’s to layer on top and it’s quite possible that after a while what we have been doing won’t be necessary anymore.”
Sunnyside’s K-12 Program aims to create uniformity among schools in the district, which is lacking in Arizona schools statewide.
Anna Frazier and Maritza Cruz are reporters for Arizona Sonoran News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com