Though there is not always agreement on what approach to take when it comes to sexuality education in schools, in this day and age it is rare to find a school system that has not yet tackled the issue in some form or another. But until this week, that was the case in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Tulsa school board voted Tuesday to institute a pilot sex education program in eight schools this school year.
Though a program has been offered in summer school, administrators believe this is the first time sex education will be addressed during the standard school year. Steve Mayfield, director of constituent and student affairs at Tulsa Public Schools (TPS), who has worked for the district for 45 years, told the Times Union, “I can’t remember it ever being a topic in TPS—even embedded in a biology class or something before.” The school system decided to take on this once taboo topic because of the rates of unintended pregnancy in the area. (Oklahoma has the fourth-highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country.) As Mayfield explained to News 9, “Forty-four percent of students who become pregnant or who are married at that age fail to graduate from high school, and that’s something that affects them for the rest of their life.”
The program will start in October at two middle schools and two high schools in the city for students in seventh, ninth, and 11th grades and will expand to four more schools in January. It is being funded by local donors and will initially be run by three outside organizations: Youth Services of Tulsa, the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, and the Tulsa City-County Health Department. The plan is to hand the program over to the school system at some point in the future and have it taught by classroom teachers.
The pilot program will use a well-known curriculum, called Making Proud Choices: A Safer Sex Approach to HIV/STDs and Teen Pregnancy Prevention. Advocates for Youth describes it as an eight-lesson HIV-prevention curriculum that emphasizes safer sex and includes information about both abstinence and condoms. The curriculum has been evaluated and found to delay initiation of sexual intercourse, reduce frequency of sex, reduce incidence of unprotected sex, and increase condom use. Kim Schutz, director of the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, told News 9, “We really view the teen pregnancy prevention program as a drop-out prevention program. This is really going to help students stay in school, finish school, go onto college, get good jobs, make Tulsa a better place to live.”
The district has decided to adopt an opt-in policy, which means schools need to receive written permission from parents before students can be enrolled in the program. Educators and administrators often prefer opt-out policies, under which students are automatically enrolled unless their parents contact the school to choose otherwise. Such policies require less administrative effort and can prevent students from being excluded simply because their parents forgot to sign the permission slip or never saw it. Opt-in letters will go out next week, and the school plans to have an informational session for parents soon.