Fort Worth ISD board approves new sex education curriculum amid protest and partisanship

dfwnewsa | February 28, 2024 | 1 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Fort Worth ISD board approves new sex education curriculum amid protest and partisanship

Fort Worth resident Gordon Jones yells at For Liberty and Justice members outside the Fort Worth ISD Administration Building on Feb. 27, 2024, holding a sign that reads: “Abstinence-only doesn’t work…” (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)
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Sex education will be back in Fort Worth ISD classrooms sometime this school year.

During a Feb. 27 board meeting, trustees voted 8-0, with trustee Tobi Jackson absent, to approve sex education curriculum Choosing the Best after a six-month review by the district-appointed School Health Advisory Council.

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“I do not want another year of students to go without access to a sex education curriculum,” said trustee Anne Darr. 

The review, held by the 21-member advisory council of parents, community members and school staff, was fraught with arguments between parents, religious and social organizations related to the implementation of abstinence-based sex education in Fort Worth ISD.

Tuesday’s board meeting drew rallies and public comment from groups such as the Tarrant County Democratic Party and Mercy Culture Church’s For Liberty and Justice. 

The meeting drew 48 public speakers. 

Fort Worth resident Gordon Jones stands outside the Fort Worth ISD Administration Building on Feb. 27, 2024, holding a sign that reads: “Abstinence-only doesn’t work…” (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)Arlington Heights High School students, including senior Chastin Crump, march in front of Fort Worth ISD’s Administration Building on Feb. 27, 2024, holding signs reading: “Comprehensive sex-ed protects our kids.” (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)State Rep. Nate Schatzline, R-Fort Worth, stands with Mercy Culture Church, For Liberty and Justice and GOP leaders and volunteers outside the Fort Worth ISD Administration Building on Feb. 27, 2024. (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)Arlington Heights High School junior Emma Barberena stands outside the Fort Worth ISD Administration Building on Feb. 27, 2024 with a microphone in her hand, protesting the district board’s approval of sex education curriculum Choosing the Best. (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)An Arlington Heights high school student argues with Gabe Poirot, a For Liberty and Justice member outside Fort Worth ISD’s Administration Building on Feb. 27, 2024. (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)Protestors, including this Fort Worth resident, held signs outside the Fort Worth ISD Administration Building on Feb. 27, 2024 reading: “Teach real sex ed.” (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)

Texas school districts are not required to teach sex education. However, districts that choose to do so are required to have parents opt their students into the course of study and lessons must focus on abstinence.

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Choosing the Best is an “abstinence-centered curriculum,” according to Atlanta-based Choosing the Best LLC.

“Abstinence does prevent pregnancies,” trustee Michael Ryan said. “It’s a law we have to follow.”

Trustees said Choosing the Best was approved because it was the board’s only option if Fort Worth ISD students are to be taught sex education this year.

“Choosing the Best is the only legal available option. The only one,” Darr said. “The board must govern within the confines of the law. When and if those laws change, this board will change accordingly.”

What’s the process for adopting a new sex ed curriculum?

In 2021, the Texas Legislature updated a law outlining how sex education curriculum must be reviewed. The process is:

School board adopts a resolution convening school health advisory council.

Advisory council must hold at least two public meetings on the materials before considering adoption.

Advisory council presents recommendations to the school board at a public meeting.

School board ensures recommendations meet state standards and considers taking action.

Funding for only the first year of the curriculum was approved at Tuesday’s meeting, as the district is purchasing it through federal pandemic relief dollars, or ESSER funds. The purchase will cost the district $72,272. 

“The state did not fund instructional materials to the full extent,” Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria, the district’s chief financial officer, said. “The first year will be funded by ESSER and then remaining years will go to the general fund.”

Sex education was not taught during the 2022-23 school year because, in January 2023, Superintendent Angélica Ramsey scrapped plans to adopt $2.6 million of purchased materials from California-based HealthSmart as the district made several missteps during the recommendation process.

This year, Ramsey and the health advisory council made sure processes were followed by law, she said. 

Still, this doesn’t deter some parents, and students, from arguing that Choosing the Best is far from the best option available. 

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“Abstinence teachings do not help teenagers who have already had sex,” Emma Barberena, a junior at Arlington Heights High School, said. “Censored curriculum should have no place here.”

Those against the curriculum highlighted that, despite Texas’ focus on abstinence, Texas had the ninth-highest teen birth rate in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Parents also noted how badly the curriculum is translated into Spanish by Google Translate. Spanish-speaking parents said they could scarcely review the curriculum, Spanish immersion parent Sabrina Ball said, as the translation was so poor.

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With such a translation, bilingual students won’t get the same sex education English-speaking students will, Ball said. 

“You’re in a classroom, and the teacher is trying to teach something from Google Translate … they’re having to be really careful on how they teach that material,” Ball said. “The material isn’t clear.”

Choosing the Best supporters told the room to opt their children out of sex education if they didn’t like the curriculum. In 2022-23, 3% of parents opted their children out of sex ed.

“Choosing the Best is evidence-based, age appropriate, medically accurate, trauma informed and inclusive of all students,” said Lori Kuykendall, president of Beacon Health Education Resources. “Students will have the information, skills and support they need to flourish.”

Many also highlighted the curriculum’s lack of “indoctrination” and “propaganda” compared to its competitors. Hollie Plemons, a Fort Worth ISD parent, said her now 16-year-old son was taught sex education from HealthSmart’s curriculum.

“He was taught about the 42 genders … he was taught about all of the things that are against our family values,” said Plemons.

Earlier this month, the Fort Worth Report obtained copies of Choosing the Best’s sixth grade and high school curricula. Within hundreds of pages of teacher manuals and student lessons, there are tips for “avoiding pregnancy” and “avoiding STDs,” including by not consuming alcohol and abstaining from sex.

How will Choosing the Best be taught in Fort Worth ISD schools?

Sixth grade curriculum:

Six 45-minute sessions

Teen pregnancy

STD risks

Avoiding unhealthy relationships

Emphasizes “the risks of sexual activity while also emphasizing the positive benefits of sexual delay.”

High school curriculum:

Eight 45-minute lessons

Avoiding pregnancy and STDs through abstinence

Overcoming pressures to be sexually active

Learning about “the negative emotional effects of casual sex and how sexual delay provides freedom: freedom from physical and emotional risks and the freedom to pursue dreams and personal goals.”

Regardless of conflicting opinions, trustees said the approval of Choosing the Best was inevitable once it was recommended by the health advisory council in late January. 

Having sex education taught was a priority this school year. The board or the advisory council didn’t have any more time to spend in review, Darr said.

Trustees encouraged those who spoke at Tuesday’s board meeting against Choosing the Best to take the issue to the State Legislature.

“I do not favor an abstinence-only curriculum as it does not provide adequate information for kids outside of the school setting,” Darr said, emphasizing that the board must still follow state law.

Fort Worth ISD has not yet provided a timeline for adding Choosing the Best curriculum into schools for this school year. 

Matthew Sgroi is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at matthew.sgroi@fortworthreport.org or @MatthewSgroi1. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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