Tucson Students Skipping Sex Ed, Restrictive Policy May Be to Blame

Arizona state law does not mandate sexuality education but does say that if a school chooses to provide such classes, students cannot be enrolled without express permission from a parent. This restrictive policy is being cited by some as the reason that so few Tucson students seem to be enrolled in sex ed.

Arizona state law does not mandate sexuality education but does say that if a school chooses to provide such classes, students cannot be enrolled without express permission from a parent. Empty classroom via Shutterstock

According to records obtained by the Arizona Daily Star, thousands of students in Tucson are not getting sexuality education even when courses are offered in their school. Arizona state law does not mandate sexuality education but does say that if a school chooses to provide such classes, students cannot be enrolled without express permission from a parent. This restrictive administrative policy, known as an opt-in policy, is being blamed by educators in Arizona for keeping students from accessing the sex education they should be getting.

Opt-in policies are rare, especially on the state level. In fact, only three states—Mississippi, Nevada, and Utah—have a statewide policy requiring parental permission before students can be enrolled in sex education. Most states and communities prefer an opt-out policy, under which all students are automatically enrolled in sexuality education but parents have the right to ask for their child to be removed from the class without penalty. These policies create less of an administrative burden on schools and ensure that, unless parents are strongly opposed to the material being presented, students will receive the education that policymakers and administrators have planned. Arizona actually has a split policy—classes focused solely on sexually transmitted disease (STDs), including HIV, are subject to an opt-out policy, but if schools choose to provide any additional content on sexuality, students must receive permission before being enrolled. (Maryland and North Carolina also have a split policy depending on the content of the class.)

Sexuality educators and advocates have long fought against opt-in policies because of the fear that putting any obstacles in the way will limit the likelihood that students will get the sex education they need. Many educators have argued that requiring written permission could lead to a situation in which students are not allowed in class simply because the permission slip got left at the bottom of the backpack or is still taped to the side of refrigerator awaiting a signature. It is difficult to know exactly how many students are not enrolled in sex education across Tucson because many of the districts in the area do not track enrollment, but educators in the area believe many students are accidentally being left out based on data from the five districts that do track sex education, which reveals that fewer than 25 percent of students are enrolled. Jodi Liggett, Planned Parenthood of Arizona’s director of policy, told the Star that many parents think their children are getting sex education when they are not.

There have been some efforts to change the legislative language to fix this problem. This year, state Sen. Ed Ableser (D-Tempe) and Rep. Victoria Steele (D-Tucson) introduced bills that would change the rule to an opt-out policy. As Ableser explained to the Star“The opt-in policy makes parents go above and beyond to make an effort to enroll their children. These aren’t the kids that we worry about. We worry about the parents that are a little absent in their children’s lives.”

Both bills were assigned to committee but never heard.

Unfortunately, the opt-in policy is not the only restrictive part of Arizona’s sex education law. The existing law also says that schools that do teach topics other than STDs and HIV must stress abstinence. Specifically, the law says:

All materials and instruction that discuss sexual intercourse must:

  • stress that pupils should abstain from sexual intercourse until they are mature adults;

  • emphasize that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the only method for avoiding pregnancy that is 100% effective;

  • stress that sexually transmitted diseases have severe consequences and constitute a serious and widespread public health problem;

  • include a discussion of the possible emotional and psychological consequences of preadolescent and adolescent sexual intercourse and the consequences of preadolescent and adolescent pregnancy;

  • promote honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage; and  advise pupils of Arizona law pertaining to the financial responsibilities of parenting and legal liabilities related to sexual intercourse with a minor.

It was actually these restrictions that kept at least one mother from signing the permission slip that came home with her sixth-grade daughter. Michele Reame, a social worker, told the Star, “I don’t find abstinence to be effective. If there’s no other discussion, that’s not realistic for this age group. If kids aren’t exposed to what their options are, they won’t know what choices to make.” Reame and her daughter discussed what the curriculum would cover and decided together not to enroll in the class.

State lawmakers have been working on broader changes as well. The legislation introduced by Victoria Steele would have required sex education to be comprehensive and medically accurate. Similar legislation has been introduced during every legislative session since at least 2010. For example, former state legislator Kyrsten Sinema (D), who now represents Arizona’s ninth district in the U.S. Congress, introduced the bill at the state level in 2010. As happens each year, it failed to pass. Nonetheless, Abelser promises to take on the topic again: “We need to make sure that students are getting life skills and a correct understanding of sex,” he said.

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood and other advocates in the state are recommending that parents not wait for the state legislature to act but instead work with their local school boards. Liggett told the Star, “Polling consistently shows that parents want their kids to have access to comprehensive sex education. And exerting local control over schools and through school boards is the shortest path to change right now.”

And there are some local examples that provide hope of what parents and advocates can accomplish. In 2013, the Tempe school district voted to add a sex education curriculum at the request of parents. The program is still in the design phase but promises to be at least medically accurate.