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Austin ISD Is Rewriting Sex Ed Curriculum To Bring More Lessons To Younger Grades

Hazel O'Neil for KUT
The Austin Independent School District wants to add topics like body image, gender identity and healthy relationships into its human sexuality curriculum.

Jim Shead is a lawyer in Austin and the father of twin boys in pre-K. Even though his kids can barely read, he’s already thinking about how he’ll teach them about puberty and sex. Right now, he’s using his own experience as a guide for what he doesn’t want to happen.

“When I was in first grade, my brother – who was 6 years older – told me the facts of life wrong,” Shead said. “He made stuff up. And so when it was seventh grade when I got the talk, I knew nothing about female anatomy, did not know what was going on down there, and I had my mouth dropped.”

Shead said he wants his sons to be better prepared when these topics come up, which is why he attended a community meeting at Travis High School last week.

As the district prepares to rewrite its sex ed curriculum for third through eighth grades, it’s looking for feedback from parents. In addition to hosting meetings at schools, the Austin Independent School District emailed families asurvey, asking them in what grade students should learn about certain topics.

Age-Appropriate Lessons

Kathy Ryan, director of academics at AISD, says the district is using the National Sexual Education Standards, which were created by a group of nonprofits that advocate for comprehensive sex ed. The standards are used in schools all over the country.

Ryan says the current curriculum doesn’t discuss reproduction in third through fifth grades, among other topics.  

“We don’t currently talk about what sexual harassment and abuse is in the third grade, and that’s part of the standards,” she said. “So kids know, 'Hey, this isn’t normal. If it doesn’t feel good, I can tell somebody.'”

In third, fourth or fifth grades, the district wants to add topics on body image, managing emotions, consent, sexual orientation and gender identity, HIV, healthy relationships and the reproductive process.

Ryan said she wants parents to know that these lessons will be age appropriate. So, consent in elementary school isn’t about sexual consent. Take a situation where one student has a crush on another and calls that person every day after school, she says. AISD wants to teach students that if they don’t like that, they can say no.

She said parents also want schools to teach the flip side of that situation.

“Like, 'I tell you, you’ve got to quit calling me. I’m not interested in you in that way,'” Ryan said. “The lesson also needs to be ... tips on how to handle that, when someone tells you no.”

As students get older, the lessons would get more detailed. In middle school, the district would also add some new topics: gender identity and sexual orientation, emergency contraception, how social media plays into relationships, and sexual abuse and harassment of all kinds.

Parents Get The First Say

This amount of information is a little daunting to Melissa Butler, who attended a meeting this week. She said she's concerned about some of the lessons that would be taught to elementary school kids.

“I just don’t think that my second- and fourth-grader need to be introduced to certain things right now," she said, "especially around gender identity, that I personally feel will confuse my children."

AISD does allow parents to opt their kids out of the entire curriculum or individual lessons.

Butler said she won’t do that, because even if she disagrees with a topic, kids will talk about it on the playground.

“I am just going to review the curriculum first and discuss it with my kids,” she said. “[All I want is] my kids to hear all of this from me first as a parent.”

Other parents at the meetings agreed that it feels uncomfortable to talk about some of this stuff so early, but they said it’s necessary because kids have so much access to the internet. Many parents said if children don’t hear these things from adults, they’ll just Google it, which can lead to misinformation.

'You Don't Need To Be Alone'

Shead said he’s glad to see the district talking more about LGBTQ issues. As a gay man, he said he hopes this kind of curriculum helps some kids avoid the confusion he felt as a child.

“I was in a small Texas town, I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “Giving something a name gives it a sense of existence. It shows that it is a thing, you can be a part of that thing, a part of that tribe a part of that identity and you don’t need to be alone.”

Parents have until the end of November to finish their surveys, then the district will start writing the curriculum. The school board is expected to vote on it in February. Lessons will look different at each school, because the curriculum is just a guideline.

The final parent meeting is at 6 tonight at Eastside Memorial High School.

Correction: A earlier version of this story misspelled Jim Shead's last name.  

Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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