After going a full academic year without sex education being taught in its 38 middle and high schools, the North East Independent School District has tentatively settled on a new curriculum that, like the former one, focuses on abstinence.

The move comes after months of debate to ensure that the district was complying with recently updated state curriculum standards. 

The adoption of the new curriculum comes the same week a report was released by Healthy Futures of Texas, a San Antonio-based nonprofit, that found Texas teenagers are giving birth at a rate 46% above the national average. Advocates tie the high rate in part to a 2021 change in state law that requires parents to opt in to sex education classes in public schools instead of allowing parents who are uncomfortable to opt out.

Jen Biundo, the senior director of policy and research for Healthy Futures of Texas, said the change is having unintended consequences.

“The big concern is kids missing out on sex ed, not because their families are opposed to it, but just because they mess up the paperwork,” she said. “You can see in the new data report that we put out, Texas has the ninth highest rate of teen birth in the nation.”

The report also referenced county-level analysis of teen births, including Bexar County, where a baby was born to a teen mother every six hours in 2021.

But the county has made significant progress in curbing teen pregnancy over the last several years from 7% above the state average in 2009 down to 5% below the state average in 2021. 

Advocates worry that a lack of comprehensive sexual education could hinder that progress.

Months of study

The process of selecting a sexual education and health curriculum in NEISD was delayed when the district’s School Health Advisory Committee, or SHAC, was disbanded late last year and reconstituted with different members and new rules at the urging of new school board members. Some community members worry the move was politically motivated, a claim committee members deny.

The SHAC is required by state law to review any changes to health or sex ed curriculum and make recommendations to the board.

The selected curriculum, called Choosing the Best, is used by many school districts across Texas and offers a “sexual risk avoidance” approach that promotes delaying sexual activity as the best choice for teens. It also teaches goal-setting, decision-making, healthy relationships, sexual violence prevention, refusal skills and character building. The previous curriculum gave students guidance and information to reduce risks when they do become sexually active, something trustees worried could encourage students to engage in sexual behavior.

But even after months of study by the committee, the board still had issues with the selection.

Last week, board members directed the committee to edit the newly adopted curriculum to remove brief references to pornography and self pleasure, stressing that the district would be teaching only what is required under the law and nothing more.

Other concerns that committee members raised in presentations included a reference to the term “safe sex,” lessons about sexually transmitted infections for sixth graders and advice in one lesson that the first place students should go if they have questions is a counselor or nurse, not a parent. 

Now that the board has authorized the curriculum’s purchase, for $150,000, the committee will begin the process of editing and revising it to address the board’s concerns and to meet all state standards. The goal is to have the content ready for high schoolers by the start of the next school year.

Aubrey Chancellor, a spokeswoman for the district, said the committee and Physical Education and Health Department plan to have all edits ready for trustee approval in time for fall implementation for high school and spring implementation for middle school.

New state standards

The changes come after the State Board of Education passed updates in 2020 that for the first time required teachers in middle school to educate students about sexually transmitted infections and contraceptives, in addition to the long-required focus on refraining from sex before marriage. The changes were set to go into effect in 2022. In response, school districts across the state suspended lessons entirely to ensure that lessons were complying with the changes.

NEISD was one of those districts. As a result of the classes being paused, some students have gone without any sexual education, putting them at greater risk for engaging in risky sexual behavior.

“We are concerned about kids potentially missing out on sex ed,” said Healthy Futures of Texas’ Biundo. “And we always encourage parents to try and talk with their kids about sexual health and healthy relationships.”

The SHAC decided not to consider the curriculum already being used in NEISD called Big Decisions, which is offered by Healthy Futures of Texas, because of what members said were the organization’s ties to Planned Parenthood.

According to SHAC documents, members worried that such a connection could run afoul of Government Code 2273, which prohibits a governmental entity from entering “into a taxpayer resource transaction with an abortion provider or an affiliate of an abortion provider.”

Biundo said the organization provided sex ed training to a chapter of Planned Parenthood but has never worked with abortion providers.

‘No glint of impropriety’

The deliberations of the SHAC have taken on a considerably more political nature since the last time the curriculum was updated in 2016, when Big Decisions was chosen over Choosing the Best, according to Tina Castellanos, who was on the committee at the time.

Castellanos told the San Antonio Report that the committee at the time chose Big Decisions because it was more comprehensive.

Trustee Diane Sciba Villarreal said the current curriculum selection process is fraught in part because of false narratives surrounding what teachers are teaching and discussing in the classroom.

“[Parents are] bombarded in the media that we’re the entity that’s trying to do horrible things to their children, which is so far from the truth that’s just not even funny,” she said. “So there can be no even glint of impropriety.”

North East Independent School District trustee Diane Sciba Villarreal speaks during a May 8 school board meeting. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Members of the SHAC stressed that they came from different backgrounds and came to a consensus on the recommendation after a thorough review.

In the end, Choosing the Best shares the same abstinence-first focus as what was being taught before, an approach that included what former student Hannah Spears called scare tactics to discourage sexual activity.

“It felt more like they were trying to scare us about sex rather than educate us and prepare us for the consequences,” she said.

Spears graduated in 2013 but heard about the same themes from her younger sister, who graduated in 2020.

“I wish they would have just been more honest about sex and the role it plays in your adult life, or even teenagers,” she said. “If teenagers are going to have sex anyways, then you should teach them how to be safe, and the reality of it, instead of just trying to fearmonger every child out of having sex.”