Sex Education Update: Respect, Consent, Responsibility
AISD gathers feedback on potential changes to Human Sexuality and Responsibility curriculum
Austin ISD officials will hold the last of three outreach meetings tonight (Thursday, Nov. 15) to get feedback on potential changes to the district's Human Sexuality and Responsibility curriculum, taught to students in kindergarten through 8th grade. (The meeting is 6-7:30pm at Eastside Memorial Early College H.S.) District parents were also sent a survey on Nov. 7 that presents concepts that could be taught to students and asks for which grade parents think each concept is appropriate. Survey submissions will be accepted until Nov. 30.
According to district officials, AISD instruction about reproduction, puberty, and relationships has not been updated in 12 years, as opposed to the three- to six-year revision of content in other subjects. The district hopes to modernize its offerings with a curriculum based on the National Sexuality Education Standards, which take a broader and more inclusive approach to "sex-ed" by, for example, using gender-neutral terms beginning in seventh grade when describing human anatomy. By the end of second grade, students should be able to "demonstrate ways to show respect for different types of families," according to the standards.
Another key to the new curriculum, AISD Director of Academics Kathy Ryan said, would be an emphasis on the "responsibility" portion of the course. Consent with regard to sexual contact has been a part of the standards for years, but the updated course could also teach students how to decline unwanted advances, such as late-night phone calls. "Our students need to have the skills and language to be comfortable saying no," Ryan said, adding that "as people we [also] need to learn to accept rejection and process it in healthy ways."
The community outreach meetings serve two purposes for AISD: giving parents an opportunity to hear directly from district staff on how they plan to gather and use input as they revise the curriculum, and providing a space for parents to ask questions and air concerns about how sexuality is taught to their children. The first meeting, held last week, included a walk-through of how to complete the survey, followed by parents breaking out into small group discussions of the potential changes, moderated by district staff. Before those discussions could begin, however, a parent who arrived late stood and protested that AISD was uninterested in listening to parent feedback. Another parent tried to explain what had been planned, but that got lost in the heat of the moment and the exchange devolved into a brief shouting match.
The flaring tempers show how fraught any discussion of youth and sexuality can be for the district. AISD is trying to navigate the concerns of ideologically disparate parents, reflected broadly by two groups: the anti-LGBTQ Concerned Parents of Texas and the progressive Informed Parents of Austin. At last week's meeting, Concerned Parents distributed a pamphlet rife with misinformation and falsehoods to frighten parents about the proposed changes. It alleges that the new standards "encourage sexual activity and LGBT experimentation in children" (not true; both state and district policy require that the curriculum be "abstinence-focused") and that "parents are not being given a say in whether these standards are appropriate" (obviously untrue, at a meeting specifically designed to give parents a say in the process).
AISD officials declined to comment on the pamphlet, but the Informed Parents have prepared their own brochure that provides links to national, state, and local sex-ed guidelines, as well as calling out the fearmongering in the Concerned Parents pamphlet. "Please evaluate all claims with a careful eye," the pamphlet reads. "When in doubt, direct questions directly to Austin ISD get accurate information."