CORRECTION: The original version of this story from Oklahoma Watch incorrectly stated that Putnam City Public Schools requires all freshman boys and girls at its three high schools who don't opt out to attend health forums about abstinence and sexually transmitted diseases. The health forums are held only at Putnam City North High School.
Oklahoma public schools vary widely in the amount of sex education they provide students, with some of the largest districts offering limited or no programs, according to a check of nearly a dozen districts by Oklahoma Watch.
Among the state’s five largest districts, the largest, Oklahoma City Public Schools, provides no sex-education classes to students at any grade level, although the district used to offer a comprehensive program two decades ago.
Tulsa Public Schools began providing a comprehensive program this school year, and will expand the classes later this semester. Among the next three largest districts, Moore Public Schools offers the least amount of sex education, teaching only HIV/AIDS education; Edmond and Putnam City public schools conduct short-term events for the student body as a whole.
The Oklahoma Department of Education does not keep records of which of the state’s 520 districts teach sex education. The state is one of 29 states that don’t mandate sex education in public schools, according to a recent report by the Guttmacher Institute, a research nonprofit. Along with 32 other states and the District of Columbia, Oklahoma does require HIV/AIDS-prevention education in schools.
Some studies have found that comprehensive sex-education programs help reduce teen birth rates, with one study showing such programs don’t increase sexual activity or sexually transmitted diseases.
Oklahoma has the nation’s fourth highest teen birth rate, with 6,496 births, or 50.4 per 1,000 females, aged 15 to 19 in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Teen pregnancies have declined in Oklahoma and nationally, with Oklahoma’s rate dropping by about 14 percent since 2007.
In 2011, 50 percent of female high school students and 51 percent of male high school students in Oklahoma reported having sexual intercourse, according to a state profile by the Sexuality and Information Council of the United States, a nonprofit devoted to education about sexuality and reproductive health. That compares with 46 percent and 49 percent nationwide.
Comprehensive sex education includes medically accurate information on topics such as relationships, human development, abstinence, the benefits and side effects of all contraception, disease prevention and how to avoid unwanted sexual advances, according to the sexuality council. HIV/AIDS education includes a discussion of the spread and prevention of the disease.
Oklahoma law requires school districts to send notes to parents informing them of all sex education and HIV/AIDS-prevention classes. Parents can opt out if they don’t want their children participating. In many districts, some required classes, such as health or biology, cover the basic biological facts of reproduction.
Here’s what Oklahoma Watch found in its checks with school districts:
- Oklahoma City Public Schools had a comprehensive sex education program about 20 years ago, but has since phased it out due to the need to spend more time focusing on college preparedness and standardized tests, said Susan Johnson-Staples, college career readiness and guidance services director. Now high school students get some related information in biology and anatomy classes and in elective health and family classes, she said. “I think over the last many years, there has been this tremendous emphasis to make sure our kids are academically prepared when they leave school,” Johnson-Staples said. “I don’t think it is that there isn’t a need (for sex education). I don’t even think it’s a case of people perhaps don’t recognize a need. The focus is just over here (on academic subjects).”
- Tulsa Public Schools partnered with several local organizations to start teaching comprehensive sex education and pregnancy-prevention in the fall — something never done before in the district. The classes started in two middle schools and two high schools, said Jim Walker, Tulsa Youth Services executive director, who is helping with the initiative. Because the curriculum was successful in the fall, Tulsa Public Schools will introduce it in all high schools this spring, Walker said. The “evidence-based” classes were taught at three different grade levels about once a week during the semester, Walker said.
- Moore Public Schools teaches only HIV/AIDS education, spokesman Jimi Fleming said.
- Edmond Public Schools has a two-hour annual program for eighth graders that addresses puberty, drugs and alcohol use, symptoms of and treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), abstinence and the ramifications of unprotected sex, spokeswoman Susan Parks-Schlepp said. Sex education aspects, such as sperm and egg cell fertilization and abstinence, are taught in required classes such as health and biology. Extracurricular family planning classes also include discussions of STIs, safe sex practices and abstinence, Parks-Schlepp said.
- Putnam City Public Schools, the state’s fifth largest district, requires all freshman boys and girls at Putnam City North High School who don’t opt out to attend health forums about abstinence and sexually transmitted diseases. All three of the district’s high schools offer optional classes on health and family and consumer science. The classes cover a range of topics, including body care, fertilization, reproduction and abstinence, spokesman Steve Lindley said.
- Lawton Public Schools teaches only state-mandated HIV/AIDS-prevention, spokesman Keith Mitchell said.
- Jenks Public Schools uses an abstinence-based sex education curriculum called “Worth the Wait” for students in grades seven and higher, spokeswoman Bonnie Rogers said. Seventh-grade education includes information on reproduction and puberty, reasons not to have sex, symptoms of STIs and legal issues regarding sexual contact and sexual abuse. Students in grades 10 and 11 learn about fetal development and prenatal care, testing and treatments for STIs and contraceptive details.
- Mid-Del Public Schools, which serves Midwest City and Del City areas, does not teach sex education beyond HIV/AIDS-prevention.
- Norman Public Schools does its sex education as an event outside of regular classes in middle school. Students in grades six through eight learn about body image, body parts, relationships, pregnancy, STIs and puberty all with a focus on abstinence, spokeswoman Shelly Hickman said.
- Enid Public Schools offers seventh grade students a countywide event with an abstinence focus.
- Union Public Schools in Tulsa County launched its Carrera program, devoted to pregnancy-prevention, sex education, academic achievement and life skills three years ago. The weekly class will eventually be taught to students in grades six through 12, Superintendent Kirt Hartzler said.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism service that produces in-depth and investigative content on important public-policy issues facing the state.