Attempting to avoid LGBTQ+ issues, school districts are denying basic sexual health education

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A LOOKOUT investigation shows that tens of thousands of youth attending the state’s public schools are not receiving nationally recommended sexual education studies, specifically in regards to gender, sexuality, and consent. Educators have used the heated politics around LGBTQ+ issues as an excuse for denying students the curriculum.

Out of 18 public school districts across Arizona in rural, suburban, and urban areas that LOOKOUT analyzed, eight districts—representing at least 37,000 school-aged children in suburban and rural parts of the state—responded and said they do not offer any kind of sex education, currently.

Those districts are: Duncan, Heber-Overgaard, Gila Bend, Ganado, Parker, Nogales, Kingman and Scottsdale.

The number of students not receiving proper sex education illustrates the effect of how schools are grappling with the politics of the time, and failing to give youth lessons about their bodies and prevent disease.

But even in urban areas where sex education is offered, such as parts of Maricopa and Pima counties, instead of offering the courses themselves, schools have turned to third-party groups to provide the education. But advocates and experts interviewed said that discussions have been limited because of both state regulations and school districts’ fears of finding themselves the focus of far-right critics who have provoked harassment of employees at school board meetings or on school grounds.

As a result, queer students—which some estimates list Arizona’s LGBTQ+ youth population at 44,000, including as many as 20,000 trans and nonbinary people under 24 years old in the state—are most at risk.

“Arizona sex education needs to change because sexual health disparities are pretty grave in our state,” said Courtney Waters, an assistant research professor at the University of Arizona. “Sexual health outcomes are bad across the state for youth, but we see it specifically among LGBTQ+ youth.”

What we found

There are 261 school districts in Arizona, ranging from the most populous, Mesa Public Schools, to the Young Public School District that serves roughly 50 students a year.

Districts that choose to teach sexual education have to go through a bureaucratic process that involves district meetings, public forums, parental guidance, and administrative oversight. LOOKOUT reported this year that those processes are marred with confusion and allows districts to forgo teaching sex education if they believe the “community interest” doesn’t align.

The result is tens of thousands of students who aren’t educated on preventative sexual health tools while HIV, syphilis, and unintended pregnancy rates locally continue to rise above the national average. LGBTQ+ students, specifically, are also more at risk of unintended pregnancySTI transmission, and domestic abuse.

Of the schools LOOKOUT found that teach sex education, not all of them offer inclusive or comprehensive sexual health studies. Instead, they only focus on puberty and body changes, along with STI education without a focus on prevention or treatment.

Educational and youth organizations that focus on LGBTQ+ students have pointed to the state’s repeal of its “No Promo Homo” law, which catapulted a local conservative movement to restrict how students could learn about sexual health.

Arizona’s law—which was similar to Florida’s current law that advocates refer to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—was repealed with bipartisan support in 2019. But far-right lawmakers and lobbying groups successfully pushed for stricter scrutiny of what could be taught in schools in regards to sexual material, including in biology and health classes.

Nate Rhoton, CEO of the LGBTQ+ youth advocacy nonprofit One∙n∙Ten, said that since the law’s repeal school districts haven’t been equipped to handle what he called “the storm or frenzy” from “‘concerned parents’ about teaching affirming and inclusive sexual health education.”

As a result, he said, school districts have “walked away” from providing classes.

In an example, Parker Unified School District, which is located just south of Lake Havasu City, decided not to offer sex education in the past because they didn’t have a certified health teacher to lead the class.

“Instead of trusting that information to a substitute teacher just off the street, we did not do it,” according to Superintendent Brad Sale.

By simply ignoring our community through education, you’re doing a lot more harm to all students.

– Nate Rhoton, CEO of One∙n∙Ten

But more recently, conservative arguments around gender, sex, and LGBTQ+ youth have chilled any movement on offering a curriculum, Sale said: “That was several years ago, and because of the political climate with that, we as a district have decided not to offer it.”

Southern Arizona sex educator Hannah Woelke explained that this is a common refrain: “Everyone knows it’s a problem. Parents know, teachers know,” Woelke said. “But nobody has the stomach to really do anything about it because it’s such a fight.”

An Arizona problem

Maricopa County has a higher incidence rate of sexually transmitted infections compared to the nation by more than 30%, according to the Arizona Department of Healthcare Service’s online data portal.

And younger people in the region are most at risk. Data from the portal showed STI cases are most common for Arizona women aged 15-24 (including trans women) and men aged 20-29 (including trans men).

The same pattern appears in rural areas such as Navajo County, where LOOKOUT identified at least one school district without a sex education curriculum. Residents there had a 37.6% higher STI rate than the state average. Most new STI cases among residents were those aged 15-24, according to the state health department.

People living there also experience a 65% higher rate of unintended pregnancies among youth than the national average, according to research from Making Action Possible by the University of Arizona.

Arizona also has the sixth highest rates of contracting syphilis in the country according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2022 breakdown.

Public health experts interviewed said that many of the problems the state faces with youth and sexually transmitted disease as well as unintended pregnancies could be solved in part by proper education in schools. But since the state pushes those decisions to local school districts, they said, the end result is a patchwork of classes and curriculum that is determined by the social politics of an area.

In a state report, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States said that Arizona’s “local control over sex education presents unique challenges that have resulted in a glaring disparity regarding the quality of sex education that students receive.”

SIECUS said that Arizona’s policy of ceding sex education from the state also “allows for the implementation of policies and curriculum that stigmatize marginalized youth, such as students of color and LGBTQ youth.”

Rural school districts such as in Duncan and Parker and larger districts in Scottsdale and Nogales have gone since at least 2015 without letting students and families opt in to sex education.

Superintendents listed reasons such as lack of interest from the community in offering sex ed, but went on to list secondary reasons such as navigating the changing laws and the desire to avoid additional stress to teachers’ workload amid a teaching shortage and pressure to shut down discussions on gender and sexuality.

And in the process of avoiding LGBTQ+ topics, the result is all students being left behind, Rhoton with One∙n∙Ten said: “By simply ignoring our community through education, you’re doing a lot more harm to all students.”

Who’s helping?

In metropolitan areas, there are organizations that try to fill gaps in the state’s health education.

In the Phoenix area, One∙n∙Ten offers monthly sexual health classes for LGBTQ+ youth and their families called “SexFYI.” The program divides people up between older teens and young adults between 18 and 24 years old to discuss consent, gender identity, internet safety, and building healthy relationships.

SexFYI is run in partnership with Affirm—formerly Arizona Family Health Partnership—and the Maricopa County Health Department. It’s only offered outside of schools.

In Pima and Maricopa counties, the Southwest Institute for Research on Women collaborates with Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation and El Rio Health to offer a program called “Spectrum+.” The program’s website claims it offers “culturally-driven comprehensive sexuality education,” including topics on HIV, hepatitis C, substance use, and LGBTQ+ care.

Those programs are also offered outside of schools.

SIROW Assistant Research Professor Courtney Waters explained that these programs often exist outside of a school setting because, “there’s a lot of rules at the public schools about having sex education. The legislation is rather unclear and there’s just a lot of fear around what they can and can’t do.”

“Education is such a key piece of reducing those disparities and our state has had really conservative rules around sex ed for decades and it doesn’t really seem to be serving anyone,” Waters said. “We see much better outcomes in other states that have more inclusive and comprehensive sex ed.”

SIROW receives $500,000 annually for five years from a federal grant by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. They work alongside groups such as the Family Pride Initiative, which also received a $425,000 federal grant from the same agency to offer counseling to queer youth, education on LGBTQ+ health, and train caregivers outside of schools.

Within schools, though, Arizona Youth Partnership has provided sex and relationship education in the state for three decades. Last year over 3,000 students participated in two of their programs aimed at healthy relationships or sexual violence.

But just because those programs exist inside school districts does not necessarily mean that youth are given the best tools for understanding their bodies, especially LGBTQ+ students.

Development and Communications Director at Arizona Youth Project Jetzabel Ramos said that getting schools to partner with them has been made more difficult after the pandemic and with the rise of the parental rights movement.

And Division Director Sara Sherman said state regulations bar them from discussing same-sex relationships in the classroom or answering questions about same-sex relationships if they arise: “We can tell them to go to a trusted adult, but not all students have a trusted adult in their life.”

These restrictions, sources said, have raised concerns that in the absence of evidence-based, medically accurate, inclusive sex education children have turned to the internet for information.

Sherman said she has seen this play out in the classroom, “When we read these questions that we’re getting from students, it’s shocking the misinformation that they’re getting from the digital space.”

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