What Georgia public school students are taught about sex, their bodies and community values depends entirely upon which school district they attend.
Georgia’s sex education rules, part of the state board of education’s overall health and physical education policy, require schools to teach AIDS prevention and abstinence, but many other specifics – such as who will teach it, when and how – are left up to the discretion of each of the state’s 181 school districts.
When the U.S. Supreme Court decided in June that abortion was a state and not a federal right, a Georgia group that provides comprehensive sex education curricula noted the work it does “makes abortions unnecessary, but this issue is deeply intertwined with contraception and quality sex education.”
Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential, GCAPP, supports about 20 schools – including Bibb schools – with implementing medically accurate comprehensive sex education classes.
“We know that there are several different curriculum options to choose from, but not all of them are quality,” said Keri Hill, senior director of school-based initiatives for GCAPP. “Not all of them have evaluations to backup their effectiveness and not all of them provide medically accurate information that helps to build our students’ self esteem and self awareness and helps them navigate puberty and healthy relationships. The curriculum options that we have do those things.”
Minimal requirements mean broad interpretations
The state’s minimal requirements for sex education leave plenty of room for interpretation by local school boards, resulting in an inconsistent smattering of instruction. The Georgia Department of Education also does not track which curriculum each school district implements.
“There are some school districts who are implementing curriculum options that are not medically accurate, unfortunately because, you know, that’s not a requirement,” Hill said. “Yes, the information that is delivered has to stress abstinence as a goal as a primary goal, and all of the curriculum options that we provide do emphasize abstinence. However, we do talk about a broad range of topics in our curriculum.”
It is difficult if not impossible to tell what type of sex education is being offered for a specific school system based on school board documents and policies available online. But parents have the right to review instructional materials and can opt-out their children from the class.
High school students in Bibb, Twiggs, Crawford, Hancock and Wilkinson counties learn a curriculum called FLASH, which stands for Family Learning and Sexual Health. FLASH is offered through agreements with GCAPP, which provides training and materials at no cost to school districts.
Bibb and Twiggs schools were among the first in the country to pilot the program in 2017. It was designed by a public health department in Seattle and includes lessons on anatomy, puberty, pregnancy, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases and abstinence.
Before implementing the FLASH curriculum, Bibb Schools had not updated its sex education curricula since the early ‘90s, according to The Telegraph archives. The Georgia Department of Education began requiring abstinence education in public schools in 1994.
Some districts continue to teach the same sex education curriculum that has been taught for decades, such as Monroe County Schools.
At Mary Persons, the county’s only high school, freshmen are taught Choosing the Best, a curriculum created by a Georgia publishing company in 1993. Houston and Jones county schools also teach the curriculum.
Monroe County Schools Superintendent Mike Hickman said the district adopted Choosing the Best in the late ‘90s or early 2000s.
Graphic visuals of sexually transmitted diseases, the failure rates of condoms and birth control plus the importance of marriage and marriage before sex are among information included in lessons.
“The Georgia Standards of Excellence actually include abstinence as one of the standards that is taught,” Hickman said. “And honestly, Choosing the Best follows that basic sentiment. … That’s just a locally adopted part of the curriculum that local districts can do.”
Though instruction was once delivered by teachers, that changed a few years ago when the district began allowing volunteers from the local crisis pregnancy center to come into classrooms to teach it.
In 2016, a group of recent Mary Persons High School graduates publicly advocated for the district to ditch Choosing the Best and adopt a comprehensive curriculum like FLASH, according to 13WMAZ. The main issues the former students had with Choosing the Best were “closed-minded of gender stereotypes and things that we don’t think are accurate or fact-based,” one student told the TV station.
Hickman said the district periodically reviews the curriculum with representatives from the Choosing the Best publishing company and the director of the Monroe County Pregnancy Center. The district determined about three years ago that Choosing the Best meets the state’s standards and no change was needed.
Even so, Hickman said the district has had to make some modifications in recent years.
“The only issues that we’ve ever had with Choosing the Best is when people didn’t follow the curriculum,” Hickman said. “And typically, that’s what we’ve tried to do is do a better job training. … If you follow the lessons, and you follow the guidance and the training that our folks are given there, it really alleviates any of the problems that we’ve had in the past to be totally honest.”
Alison Macklin, policy and advocacy director for nonprofit SIECUS, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, said crisis pregnancy centers are known to use tactics based in fear and shame such as teaching students to imagine their sex and their bodies are like tape that loses its adhesiveness with each use.
“It really is an attempt to push a certain moral viewpoint on all young people,” Macklin said. “There’s not a lot of policy, there’s not a lot of accountability when it comes to checking on who, what the training is for teachers who are teaching the subject matter.”
SIECUS advocates for comprehensive sex education and was founded in 1964 by a medical director for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
“What we know from 30 years of research … is that people who get comprehensive sex education while they’re going to public schools grow up to have healthier sexual lives,” Macklin said. “So you see less incidences of sexual assaults and sexual violence, you see healthier relationships, you see more inclusion and the feelings of worth, you see more positive mental health outcomes, especially for LGBTQ+ individuals. And so the long term impacts are really great, way greater.”
The state board of education’s policy states all sex education curricula “shall emphasize abstinence from sexual activity until marriage and fidelity in marriage as important personal goals.”
Macklin said that mandate is problematic because marriage “is not required of anyone (and) up until a few years ago, it wasn’t allowed for everyone.”
“When you put something like marriage, which is, you know, in some faith-based practices, even a sacrament of faith, you really are starting to cross the line when it comes to conflating religious practices and in a secular system,” Macklin said. “When we look at how, specifically in Georgia, how some of this curriculum is being used, I think the goals are a little more short sighted.”
Teen pregnancies continue to decline
Pregnancies among ages 10-19 have steadily declined nationwide since 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Georgia, teen pregnancies declined 72% since 2000, by 70% in Monroe County and by 56% in Bibb County. Meanwhile, the number of abortions has remained relatively unchanged.
Christian Hand, health educator for the Georgia Department of Health’s North Central Health District, said she attributes the decrease in teen pregnancies in part to the expansion of quality sex education.
Other potential drivers for the decline are increased access to contraception and the advent of smartphones, which came with the new ability to access information online from anywhere.
Hand, who graduated from Bibb Schools in 2010, recalled growing up in a time before smartphones became ubiquitous. For answers to her questions about sex and puberty, “it was either like you ask your parents or you ask your friends, and they might not have the best information,” she said.
This story available with permission from The Macon Newsroom, a project of the Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University.