A few years ago, I stood outside of my classroom listening to a beautiful, dark-eyed, 15-year-old girl.
“Is it sex, miss?” she asked, her voice quavering as she stared down at hot-pink toenails.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” I said, desperate for some clarification. “I’m not sure what you’re trying to ask me. Did you have sex? Did someone hurt you? Are you all right?”
“Tengo miedo,” she said, her eyes darting up to meet mine when she said a word she had learned in my English as a Second Language class. “Uh, afraid, miss. I don’t feel good each day.”
Afraid. Sex. Not feeling well. I started to connect the dots. “Are you afraid that you’re pregnant?” I found myself miming a pregnant belly, something not covered in my master’s classes for teaching.
“Sí, miss. Yes!” she said. Relief washed over her face at my understanding.
“Did you have sex?” I asked.
“I not sure, miss. Tell me, please?” Following my lead, she used her hands and her body to act out the incident while keeping her pleading eyes locked on me.
Woefully unprepared as a second-year teacher, I encouraged the school nurse to talk to the girl’s mother — the only real tool at my disposal. The girl’s pregnancy was later confirmed. But a botched abortion led to a host of medical problems that caused her to drop out of school.
This tragic, disturbing story made me realize the extent to which the system had failed this student. She hadn’t learned basic concepts about sex from school, home or any other reliable adults in her life. This realization early in my teaching career planted a question in my mind: How effective is Texas public schools' approach to sex education?
Most Texas schools that teach sex education have historically taken an abstinence-only approach. (The state permits districts to offer more comprehensive lessons, but they must focus on abstinence.) More recently, in response to a shift in public opinion away from abstinence-only education, many districts across the state have started to adopt “abstinence-plus” programs, which promote abstinence but also include information on contraceptives. In a state with the fifth-highest teen birth rate and the highest rate of repeat teen births in the country, more comprehensive programs like these are highly necessary.
However, a 2011 report showed that most Texas schools — as many as three-quarters — continue to teach abstinence only. The lack of systematic accountability and support from policymakers has interfered with the launch of abstinence-plus programs, leaving Texas back where it started.
In the meantime, students like mine are rapidly becoming statistics, dropping out of school and often left to fend for themselves. Sex education in public schools raises valid and complex questions over issues like parents’ rights, the public sphere versus the private square, and teacher quality. But using these issues as excuses to ignore the faults in the current system only further damages the physical and emotional health of our students, particularly those from low-income households.
It is our responsibility to support a different approach to sex education in Texas schools — one that prioritizes the future of our great state’s children over adults’ resistance to discomfort and change.