Bulloch County’s school system is rolling out a sex education curriculum that – in its second year, 2020-21 – will include gender identity and sexual orientation among lessons for ninth grade and in 2021-22 expand this to seventh and eighth grades.
The annual 10-day units of lessons during health and physical education classes in middle and high schools will address topics from the facts of the female and male reproductive systems in sixth and seventh grades to birth control methods in eighth and ninth grades. But abstinence is to be emphasized at every grade level, and sexual assault and violence prevention lessons are part of the curriculum for grades 7, 8 and 9.
Teacher preparation is a big part of the plan, as Debbie Sarratt, academic support specialist, emphasized to the Board of Education when she presented a timeline Thursday for the three-year rollout. That, and the sensitivity of the topics, is why the gender identify and sexual orientation element is not being introduced immediately, she said.
“Because our teachers are new to teaching sex ed – not all of them but mainly our middle-grades teachers are new to teaching sex ed – we wanted to roll out the sex ed curriculum without gender identity and sexual orientation lessons the first year, because we felt like we wanted them to get comfortable with teaching the material,” Sarratt said.
So this next school year, sexual orientation and gender identity will not be part of the curriculum in any of the grades, but will be introduced beginning with ninth grade the following year, 2020-21. The curriculum chart shows this as a one-day topic, the second day of the unit, followed by “undoing gender stereotypes,” the next day.
Slated to be introduced as a one-day topic in eighth-grade and within a lesson in seventh grade in 2021-22, “sexual orientation and gender identity” will not become a sixth-grade topic under this plan.
Lessons in some other sensitive topics, namely sexual assault and violence prevention, will be taught in grades 7, 8 and 9 beginning this school year, 2019-20, Sarratt noted. With the adoption of a revised sex education policy on Nov. 29, 2018, the board made age-appropriate sexual abuse and assault awareness instruction a requirement for kindergarten through ninth grade.
For elementary schools, this takes the form of “Good Touch, Bad Touch” or similar instruction, and counselors help to teach it, Superintendent Charles Wilson said last fall.
With the new unit for older students, violence prevention will be addressed through several days’ lessons in eighth and ninth grades. “Respecting boundaries” is the ninth day’s lesson title for eighth grade, followed on the tenth day by sexual harassment and bullying prevention.
When added in the second and third years of the rollout, the gender identity and “undoing gender stereotypes” lessons will also help to address violence prevention, Sarratt said.
The sex education unit will be taught late in a semester, allowing time to first train teachers in how to teach these topics, she said.
First, a grant-funded, national organization, WISE, or Working to Institutionalize Sex Education, will provide two days of training to teachers during pre-planning at the start of the school year and on the first planning day in September, Sarratt said. Second, middle school teachers will have an “It’s your turn” day to model teaching the classes to high school teachers.
“I felt like teachers needed a day to actually teach the material, say the words, speak the language, but not maybe in front of kids,” she said.
Third, on a “model instruction” day, an instructor from WISE will teach a class of high school or middle school students with teachers watching. Fourth, any teachers who feel they need more preparation can observe another local teacher in sex education in class on a later day.
The November policy revision kept in place the emphasis on abstinence from the board’s older sex education policy, but simplified the language. Teen pregnancy prevention and is also a goal of the instruction. Sexually transmitted diseases and HIV are lesson topics beginning in sixth grade.
Option to opt out
Bulloch County’s policy already let parents opt their children out of the sex education unit. The November revision made this easier by requiring a form letter. The letter, which was shown to the board in a finished form, will be sent home with students, but also directed to parents through an email blast and telephone callout.
Parents who request it must be allowed to see the curriculum materials at school. A parent information open house is also being planned at each middle and high school, Sarratt said.
District 1 Board of Education member Cheri Wagner asked if the curriculum materials would be made available to parents who prefer to teach this topic to their children at home.
Sex education committee member Joanne Chopak-Foss, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University, answered that this could lead to problems because parents will not have the training to teach this material. She noted that schools usually do not provide their materials on other subjects, such as math, for parents who home-school.
Instead, the school system should direct parents to other resources, she said.
“But also, one of the visions that the committee and the district, at least that was communicated to us, is that we also want to provide training for parents to talk to their children,” Chopak-Foss said. “Many of these lessons have a parent component.”
Currently, the opt-out form is designed as all-or-nothing, allowing a parent to sign stating that “I DO NOT want my child to participate in the ten-day sexuality education unit.”
Alternate assignments will then be provided in a separate location.
The committee considered the possibility of allowing opt-out from portions of the unit but decided it should be all-or-none, Sarratt said.
“It would be difficult for a child to miss one, two, three days in and out of the classroom because there’s a continuity going on, I feel like,” she said.
Consultants from WISE recommended the all-or-nothing approach, Chopak-Foss said.
District 4 BOE member April Newkirk suggested a more specific letter to parents, one that would identify more of the topics. While the current opt-out letter emphasizes a focus on abstinence, some of the topics “do not scream abstinence,” Newkirk said, adding that while this is fine with her, she does not want parents to feel they have been misled.
“If you were to look at the actual curriculum with lessons … you would see that every lesson is abstinence-based, even if it’s not in the title,” Chopak-Foss said.
Saying “some is better than none,” Newkirk also asked the committee to reconsider the all-or-nothing approach, but acknowledged that partial opt-outs would be difficult logistically.
“I would just like for y’all to reconsider the all-or-nothing, because I do think some of these topics are necessary, but I also think in a very conservative community some parents may opt out of everything, and we don’t want them to do that if it’s just one or two topics that they’re not ready, or want to have control over what their child is a part of,” she said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.