Some students and sex educators are desperate for a sex education overhaul in Arkansas as STI rates climb and the state holds steady as first in the nation for teenage birth rates.
While the state education code contains guidelines for sexuality education, there is no law or regulation requiring Arkansas schools to teach any sex education beyond HIV information. There is also no requirement that what is taught be medically accurate, age-appropriate, culturally appropriate, unbiased or non-religion-promoting.
When taught in Arkansas public schools, sex education must use abstinence-focused primary prevention programs. Secondary-prevention risk mitigation information may only be taught as a follow up.
Karleigh Ferrell, a UA junior, graduated from Concord High School in rural Cleburne County. Ferrell said she didn’t think she learned much about sex and sexual health from her high school health curriculum.
Ferrell remembers her health teacher only spending a day or two on sex education. She remembers no mention of contraception, sexuality, gender identity, LGBTQ health issues, consent, healthy relationships or sexual abuse in the health textbook, Ferrell said.
Concord High School principal Scott Whillock did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Ferrell, a childhood education major, said she hopes the laws and culture surrounding sex education in Arkansas will be different when she is a teacher.
Theresa Parrish, a UA academic counselor, is the former coordinator and a current teacher for the Our Whole Lives program at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville. OWL is a nationwide program that teaches age-appropriate, comprehensive sexuality education to people ranging from kindergarten-age to elderly adults. Parrish thinks the condition of sex education in Arkansas is dire, she said.
“The state’s position on sex ed is archaic, and it’s counterproductive,” Parrish said. “It is held in place by the patriarchy that wants to keep women in a certain place. It’s fueled by misinformation.”
Clarksville High School brings in representatives of the Ozark Rape Crisis Center and Reality Check Inc., a primary prevention organization, to speak in health classes.
Beth Bryant, co-founder and executive director of Reality Check, said the organization works with more than 9,000 students across the state to help develop goals, healthy relationships and responsible decision-making. The aim of RCI programs is to teach students to value themselves by not engaging in behaviors like underage sex and sexting, Bryant said.
“I don’t know how it’s happened, but we have so many young people that don’t understand their value and their worth,” Bryant said.
A standard RCI high school program includes medically accurate information on abstinence, the failure and success rates of condoms and hormonal birth control, self-worth and “consent under the law,” Bryant said. Discussion of consent focuses on students making decisions about what is right for them, she said.
Bryant said she thinks risk avoidance programs like RCI’s are the best way to teach sex education. She is not convinced that evidence proves that administering comprehensive risk reduction programs make students safer.
The CDC evaluated the effectiveness of 66 CRR programs and 23 abstinence-only programs in 2009. Researchers found that CRR programs were more effective at increasing the age of sex initiation and decreasing frequency of sexual activity and STI rates among teens.
In 2019, the American Journal of Public Health Associations found that federal funding of abstinence-only education was linked to higher teenage birth rates in conservative states. However, funding more comprehensive programs had the opposite effect.
Brandon Ward, a UA junior who attended the Bentonville School District, said he had a negative experience with sex education. In his required health class at Bentonville High School, only a few days were spent on sexual health, during which time a guest speaker lectured on the importance of abstinence and the dangers of STIs and pregnancy, Ward said.
Ward said he thought the overall tone of the class was sex-negative, fear-based and shaming. He does not remember the speaker addressing contraception besides condoms, sexuality, gender identity, LGBTQ sexual health issues or sexual consent, Ward said.
BSD communications director Leslee Wright said in an email that the district’s sex education curriculum complies with Arkansas education code guidelines for fifth grade through high school. The high school program includes STI, abstinence, and contraception education, but does not include any information on LGBTQ issues, Wright said.
The high school health class includes a three-day visit from a representative of Reality Check Inc., Wright said.
Parrish thinks in order to reduce health risks and keep students safe, state sex education should be mandatory for all schools and follow a similar model to OWL. This includes teaching children about bodily autonomy at a young age and building from there.
“People have to know what’s available, and they need to know how to use what’s available, and they need to know the risk factors of what’s available,” Parrish said. “And they need to be comfortable talking about these things.”
The CDC sets guidelines for 19 critical sex education topics. In 2016, 38% of Arkansas secondary schools taught students all 19 topics in a required course in grades 9-12, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.