Officials representing the largest school district in Florida voted this week to reject a previously approved sex education textbook, a decision that could leave the fourth-largest school district in the country without a sex-ed curriculum for much of the school year. The Miami-Dade County School Board voted 5-4 on Wednesday to discard the textbook after a months-long campaign from some parents and community members, who said the book, which included topics such as abortion and birth control, was not age appropriate and violated their parental rights.
Some see the school board’s reversal as the first test case of Florida’s controversial Parental Rights in Education Act, which went into effect July 1 and was invoked by opponents of the new sex education textbook. The law, which critics have dubbed “don’t say gay,” bans educators from talking about sexuality and gender with students from kindergarten through third grade and gives parents broad rights to challenge any K-12 material they don’t consider developmentally appropriate for their children.
Educators, public health experts and student advocates argue that denying kids a sex education curriculum could harm the health and safety of the very students whom parents and community members say they want to protect. Florida, like many other states, allows parents to opt their children out of sex education courses if they disagree with the material. Critics of the school board’s decision say that a minority of parents have effectively opted hundreds of thousands of kids out of important and potentially lifesaving education.
The school board’s decision was “heartbreaking and, quite honestly, infuriating,” said Brittany McBride, associate director of sex education and training for Advocates for Youth, a sex education advocacy group. “Young people deserve and have a right to a complete and honest education.”
Because comprehensive sex education helps reduce sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy, Leslie Kantor, a professor who leads the department of urban-global public health at Rutgers University, said she considers laws like Florida’s a public health issue: “Young people’s health is being sacrificed while the adults are arguing.”
The Miami Herald reports that Wednesday’s vote followed “an emotionally charged public comment period,” which included the filing of 278 petitions objecting to the proposed textbook. More than 330,000 students are enrolled in Miami-Dade public schools. The Miami-Dade County School Board previously voted to accept middle school and high school versions of the textbook, “Comprehensive Health Skills,” in April, and a follow-up hearing reviewing the material resulted in a recommendation to deny the petitions and adopt the text.
But with the latest school board decision, Miami-Dade’s public school students will go without any sex education curriculum for at least four to eight months, according to the Herald.
School board members who rejected the textbook said they received numerous emails from people who were against it. Board member Mari Tere Rojas, who voted against the books, said she found some chapters “extremely troublesome,” Politico reports.
“I do not consider them to be age appropriate,” Rojas said. “In my opinion, they go beyond what the state standards are.”
But School Board Vice Chair Steve Gallon III, who voted to adopt the textbook, said that out of more than 40 people who signed up to speak at the board’s meeting Wednesday, 38 were in support of the sex education materials, while only four were opposed, the Herald reports.
The “Comprehensive Health Skills” high school version includes chapters on developing interpersonal skills, managing stress, having a healthy body image, preventing violence, and understanding sexually transmitted infections and communicable diseases. School board members had already decided in April, when they approved the textbooks, to strike out a chapter called “Understanding Sexuality,” which covered gender identity and sexual orientation, the Herald reports.
Given how influential Florida’s law has been — more than a dozen states have introduced similar legislation since it was passed in March — sex education advocates worry that Miami-Dade County Public Schools could signal what’s to come in other parts of the country.
Education and public health experts say the benefits of comprehensive and inclusive sex education are myriad for students of all backgrounds and grade levels, and some research has found that a large majority of parents across the political spectrum support sex education in middle and high school.
“Public schools do have a critical role to play in providing key health education,” Kantor said. “The fact is, most parents want schools to be partners in providing that information.”
Eva Goldfarb and Lisa Lieberman, public health professors at Montclair State University, say their research has found that comprehensive sex education beginning in early grades begets positive, “powerful” outcomes. This education focuses on healthy interpersonal relationships, said Goldfarb: for example, how to treat others with respect, how to ask permission to touch someone (and how to respond if someone refuses). In later grades, students build on those concepts to understand consent, bodily autonomy and having healthy relationships, Goldfarb added.
Lieberman said that besides reducing teen pregnancy rates, a good sex education curriculum has broad effects on young people’s safety and life skills: It can also reduce homophobic bullying, help students feel more comfortable with their gender, improve young people’s communication skills, empower them to report child sex abuse and more.
Terri Powell, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, put it this way: “We’ve seen that, when armed with information and access [to contraception], young people make really good decisions.”
This type of education is even more crucial in a post-Roe landscape, sex education advocates say. In Florida, a 15-week abortion ban has already taken effect.
Opponents of the proposed Miami-Dade sex-ed textbook said they were not against sexual education generally.
Alex Serrano, county director for County Citizens Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization that “empowers citizens to defend their freedom and liberty,” told reporters Wednesday in Miami that he was against the textbook’s content because it was either inappropriate or “not scientifically factual” — like the book’s statement that vaccinations are the only proven method for preventing viral disease, the Herald reports.
“We are not against sexual education or human reproduction and sexual education books,” Serrano said. “We are for statutory compliance and age appropriateness in the content … and compliance with parental rights law.” Serrano added that he thinks gender “ideology” does not belong in these educational materials.
Public health experts see these arguments as part of a national, politically driven scare campaign targeting parents, and argue that the impact on students will lead to greater disparities and harm.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools is a majority-minority school district, where 90 percent of the student population is students of color (Latino/Hispanic students make up nearly three-quarters of all K-12 students, with Black students composing 19 percent). More than half of all Miami-Dade students are considered economically disadvantaged.
Because of the pandemic, many students across the country lost access to important sex education as schools went remote, Goldfarb said. A lack of sex education will further hurt LGBTQ youths who do not have support at home, Goldfarb said, as well as young people of color and children from poor families, who tend to be disproportionately impacted by changes in health policies because of systemic issues, such as a lack of information and access to contraception. It could also prevent young victims of sexual assault and violence from getting the information and help they need to reckon with their abuse, she added.
Zoey Brewer, a student at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and an intern at the survivor advocacy group Know Your IX, said withholding sex education means preventing students from having a “real understandings of boundaries, healthy relationships and bodily autonomy.”
A survivor herself, Brewer noted that students “are already experiencing [sexual] violence on campuses.” According to Brewer, who coordinates student-led sex education trainings, many students what more comprehensive sex education, particularly centered on learning about consent.
“I think a lot of parents minimize what students want to learn about and believe that it’s an attack on your [kids] who learn about these things or it’s an attack on your parental rights,” she said. But by denying their children sex education, parents may be making their kids more vulnerable to violence, particularly in intimate relationships, Brewer said.
“Have they ever even asked a student what they want or what they need?” Brewer said of sex education critics. “If you went to the students of the school district and said, ‘What do you want out of your sex education?’ You would probably get a response that would be in stark contrast to what their parents said in that meeting.”