High school students in one Las Vegas area school district are speaking up about why they deserve medically-accurate sex ed classes, saying they don’t want their curriculum to be restricted by parents and legislators who are squeamish about important sexual health topics.
There’s been quite a bit of controversy over sexual education in Clark County School District over the past several weeks. Last month, a small group of vocal parents raised concerns about proposed comprehensive sex ed resources that included factual information about topics like masturbation, abortion, and sexual assault. Following significant pressure from parents who said those subjects were inappropriate, district officials halted their plans to update the current curriculum — and instead instituted a series of school board meetings to solicit more feedback from the community about what to include in sex ed classes.
But this week’s public forum on the issue also included some push back from high school students who don’t like the direction the controversy is headed. A group of students pushing for comprehensive sex ed protested the meeting with signs reading “Knowledge Is Power,” Our Health Matters,” and “Students for Sex Education.”
Those students told 8 News Now that they support serious reform because their current health classes are too vague, too conservative, and don’t prepare them for the real-world situations they encounter in their own lives. For instance, junior Caitlyn Caruso — a survivor of sexual assault — said there needs to be more information imparted to students about healthy relationships and rape prevention.
“We have the right to know what’s going on,” Caruso says in a video produced by the Nevada Teen Health and Safety Coalition, a group in the state working to implement comprehensive sex ed. “I didn’t have words to name what had happened to me in the past and the experiences I had with sexual assault… I wasn’t provided with that terminology in my sexual health education classes here in Nevada. It took me years before I could access that information and could name what happened to me.”
Plus, according to Caruso, her school’s current emphasis on abstinence sent a damaging message to her as a rape survivor, since she had not made the choice to become sexually active.
“When I walked into my first sex education class, I was confronted by the immediate message ‘Don’t have sex until you get married’ and ‘If you have sex before get married, you’re not pure anymore,’ ” she recounts. “I felt ostracized and alienated and impure. I felt dirty, and like I didn’t belong there, and like I didn’t really belong anywhere.”
The Nevada Teen Health and Safety Coalition is collecting stories from other residents like Caruso who support better sex ed, as well as encouraging people to sign a petition urging the Clark County School District to give teens the “tools and information to lead healthy lives, make fully informed decisions, and prepare themselves to confront dating violence.”
Although public school districts started moving toward comprehensive sex ed in the 1990s, the pendulum has recently swung back in the opposite direction. As TIME reported this week, over the past 20 years, the number of states that require students to get some kind of sex ed in the classroom has been cut in half. Outrage about so-called “X rated” materials in health classes — as well as a renewed focus on religiously-based abstinence messages driven by groups like the Southern Baptist Convention — has led school districts to back away from the issue. According to federal health officials, most U.S. teens don’t receive formal sex ed until after they’ve already started having sex.
But teens across the country are fighting back. Caruso isn’t the first high schooler to speak up about the potentially damaging effects of inadequate sex ed materials. Last year, a West Virginia high school student named Katelyn Campbell made national headlines after protesting against a “slut-shaming” abstinence education course. And over the summer, a Canadian teen convinced her school to drop a course on sexual purity after she filed a human rights complaint against it.