Sex can be a complicated subject in any context, with religious, political, relational and familial factors influencing how it is addressed, perceived and internalized. It is by turns essential and uncomfortable to educate young people about sex, and the tension between those divergent factors influences sex-education curricula such that they range from nonexistent to incomplete to comprehensive. A bill nearing passage in the Colorado Legislature would push school districts in the state toward the latter.
Under House Bill 1081, school districts would receive state and federal grant funding for sex education only if their curricula were comprehensive in the subject matter covered. The meat of the bill describes what this means and the intent behind it: “The moneys distributed through the program must only be used for the purpose of providing comprehensive human-sexuality education programs that are evidence-based, culturally sensitive, medically accurate, age-appropriate, reflective of positive youth development approaches, and that comply with statutory content standards.” Abstinence-only programs, for example, would not measure up to the standard created in the legislation, though the measure was amended to recognize abstinence as a 100 percent effective means of avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and, therefore, an important component of a comprehensive sex-education curriculum. That is appropriate.
The bill is premised on the notion that young people have a right to “receive medically and scientifically accurate information to empower them to make informed decisions that promote their individual physical and mental health and well-being,” and that all of Colorado’s young people enjoy that right, regardless of where they live, their socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender – biological or otherwise – or physical or intellectual ability.
As uncomfortable as some of the subject matter covered in a comprehensive sex-education course can be, it can be the foundation of healthy decisions regarding relationships in a volatile time in young people’s lives. Ensuring that there is universal access to that information is critical, regardless of the political environment of a particular community. The measure is sensitive, though, to the fact that some families would prefer to keep discussions about sex at the family level, and allows them to opt their students out of the school courses. That strikes a workable balance between making information available while giving families the option of limiting their children’s access to it.
The bill moves the sex-ed curriculum – and responsibility for its development – to the Department of Public Health and Environment, an appropriate place to locate what is far more a health discussion than one linked to educational standards. Doing so can help to depoliticize the conversation around sex education, somewhat while increasing the likelihood that the curriculum will be as scientifically and medically accurate as possible. Linking with the Department of Education to determine the progression of how the information is delivered to children at various grade levels will be critical. So, too, will be thorough communication with parents so that they are aware of what their children will be learning and when. With that information, families can decide what is appropriate for them and opt out if they choose to.
The Legislature is right to set a high bar for sex education in Colorado, insisting that children deserve access to a complete curriculum of information that can empower them to make healthy decisions about their sexual behavior – decisions that go far beyond the behavior itself to impact academic performance and mental and physical health as well as personal and family relationships. House Bill 1081 is a good move for Colorado and its young people.