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In a state with no consistent sex education standards, some Ohio groups are working with schools to get students the needed education, and even building programs for parents to have the tools they need to talk about it with their kids.
With the fall of Roe v. Wade leading to battles over the right to abortion in the state, educators have seen an increase in requests for pregnancy prevention classes, but they say a comprehensive look at sexual education, and health education overall, would be more beneficial as students navigate their own health.
Ohio stresses abstinence-only sex education as a general policy, with $2 million from the last state budget, House Bill 110, going toward abstinence-only education.
Parents must be notified about certain subjects being taught in the programs. There is an opt-in/opt-out policy for lessons on sex education, specifically HIV and healthy relationships education, and any material outside of mandated sex education. For healthy relationships education, materials must be made available to parents for review.
Course material and instruction, according to Ohio law, must “stress that students should abstain from sexual activity until after marriage;” “teach the potential physical, psychological, emotional, and social side effects of participating in sexual activity outside of marriage;” “teach that conceiving children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society;” “advise students of the laws pertaining to financial responsibility of parents to children born in and out of wedlock;” and “emphasize adoption as an option for unintended pregnancies.”
If a bill introduced before the Ohio Legislature went on summer break is successful, further regulations could be on the horizon when it comes to discussions of sexual content.
Gov. Mike DeWine, in a comment related to House Bill 616 — which would ban information on gender identity and sexual orientation for children in third grade or younger — said he did not support sex education for kindergarten through third grade.
With youth facing a global pandemic and other traumas as they work their way toward adulthood, organizations like Planned Parenthood’s Ohio Center of Sex Education are putting teens’ own health in their hands with peer education programs. Though the programs have been around for more than a decade, the impact of reproductive rights on children and teens has gone through lots of changes.
“What we have are young folks who are confused, just like everybody, about what’s happening and that creates a lot of anxiety for them,” said Jenna Wojdacz, director of education for Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio. “The youth are freaked out, and some of them are furious.”
The fundamental tenet of the peer education model for sex education is “accurate, inclusive, affirming sexual education is a human right,” according to Wojdacz.
But that education doesn’t come without parental consent, something that is more rigorous at the peer education level than it is even when schools ask for permission for their sex ed programs.
Those sex ed programs aren’t just in schools now either, as the demand for education across the state grows.
According to Sarah Dahlston, director of education for Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio, adult programs for comprehensive sex education and programs for those with developmental disabilities have allowed them to broaden sex ed, even where the state won’t do so. Through referrals from county boards of developmental disabilities, boards of health, professional trainings and parents nights, Dahlston said they’ve been able to navigate changes in demand, legislation and the political climate.
“What drives our change is community need,” Dahlston said. “So, if we have a lot of questions around something, we develop a program around it.”
The programs, particularly those in schools, provide their materials to the schools to allow transparency, because they don’t see harm in everyone involved having a better understanding of what they’re teaching.
“It’s not about encouraging behavior,” Dahlston said. “It’s more so about equipping them with the knowledge that they need and the confidence that they need to advocate for themselves.”
That knowledge is hard to come by in a state that has inconsistent education from district to district. Ohio law allows districts the freedom to establish their own sex ed programs without uniformity throughout the state.
“They could be teaching sex ed in ten different ways,” Dahlston said.
The Center for Sex Education doesn’t turn away schools or organizations if they don’t have the ability to pay, but they have to rely on local grants and other funding sources, since the state has taken stances not to provide funding when it might involve discussions of abortion.
“We do not get values-based, we don’t get political, we use a lot of language like ‘some people believe,” Wojdacz said, adding that abortion, both spontaneous abortion (also called miscarriage) and elective, are “presented as a factual part of the reproductive process.”
According to a 2022 federal funding overview compiled by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, who has a chapter in Ohio, the state received more than $2 million in Title V Sexual Risk Avoidance Education funds, which SEICUS couples with Abstinence Only Until Marriage funding in claiming the programs “actively harm young people.”
“Many of these programs fail to teach young people about condoms and contraception, removing their autonomy, putting them at risk,” according to a federal funding report by SEICUS. “BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and LGBTQ+ youth are especially harmed by these programs.”
Ohio also received nearly $500,000 from the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, $1.8 million from the Personal Responsibility Education Program and more than $860,000 from the federal Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program.
The PREP and TPPP programs were established in 2010 through the Affordable Care Act, with the PREP program going straight to state health agencies, with a requirement that programs “must educate young people about both abstinence and contraception for unintended pregnancy and (sexually transmitted infection) prevention, including HIV/AIDS.”
The TPPP requires funded programs to be “medically-accurate, age-appropriate and be either based on or informed by evidence.”
The PREP, TPPP, and DASH programs help shift and advance sex education, SEICUS found, but “they still provide piecemeal sex education to narrow segments of the youth population.”
“As long as the focus of these initiatives remains solely on influencing public health outcomes – namely, preventing HIV/AIDS, other STIs and teen pregnancy – rather than on knowledge and empowerment, young people will lack the full range of information and skills they need to make healthy life choices and enjoy health relationships,” SEICUS said in its analysis of federal funding levels.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs that overturned Roe v. Wade, the sex education programs at Planned Parenthood are still going strong, and see only opportunity when it comes to educating in a post-Roe landscape.
“Nobody ever wanted abortion to be a solution to not getting a good education,” Wojdacz said. “We’re not going anywhere. We will figure this out.”
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