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AUSTIN — Despite widespread support for teaching sex education in public-school classrooms, over 83 percent of Texas districts taught abstinence-only — or no sex education at all — in 2015-16.

Meanwhile, as the state’s larger districts adopt abstinence-plus sex-ed curricula, Texas continues to experience one of the nation’s highest teen birthrates.

“Six out of 10 Texas [high school] seniors have had sex at least once,” said David Wiley, a Texas State University health education professor. “I’m not quite sure what we’re protecting students from.”

The numbers come from a new report, “Conspiracy of Silence: Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools in 2015-16,” recently released by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, an Austin-based watchdog organization.

“What was most alarming was the incidence of school districts that are not teaching any sex education,” said Nicole Cushman, executive director of the Rutgers University-based Answer program, which advocates comprehensive sex education. “School districts backing away from any sex education is really bucking the trend.”

Twenty-five percent of Texas school districts offered no sex education at all, up from 2.3 percent eight years ago, according to the study.

“The Legislature’s decision in 2009 to drop health education as a high school graduation requirement appears to be a key factor,” the researchers wrote. “Districts offering no high school health class were more than four times more likely than other districts to offer no sex education to students.”

Some of Texas public schools’ failure to offer sex education was because of, “apathy by the general public,” said Wiley, who was one of the new report’s researchers.

Apathy notwithstanding, Texans support sex education in schools, Wiley said.

As far back as 2004, a Scripps Howard poll showed that 90 percent of Texas adults favored teaching sex education that includes information about contraceptive methods, the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and abstinence.

However, Wiley said, “those people don’t show up for school board meetings,” and many school administrators don’t want to battle over sex education curricula.

Northeast ISD in San Antonio last spring drew criticism when it adopted Draw the Line/Respect the Line, a sex-education curriculum for middle schoolers.

The program encourages students to delay engaging in sexual intercourse.

The abstinence-focused program, “emphasizes developing young peoples’ interpersonal and intrapersonal skills so that they can set sexual limits,” according to the Research Center for Adolescent Pregnancy.

Eighth-graders also, “learn how to use condoms and practice refusal skills in dating contexts,” according to the research council.

Kellie Gretschel, a parent in Northeast ISD and member of the San Antonio Coalition for Life, objects to the program, saying there are better evidence-based options.

While Draw the Line/Respect the Line, “helps boys to delay sexual activity, it does nothing for young ladies,” Gretschel said.

As for abstinence-only sex education, it’s not mandated under state law, Wiley said.

Such programs incorrectly promote the idea that “condoms and other contraception are ineffective and that using them is a high-risk behavior,” according to the Texas report.

State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, has filed a bill that would require sex education programs to offer accurate birth-control information, along with information on abstinence.

Wiley said it’s at least the fourth such bill that’s been proposed by Texas lawmakers; previous efforts have failed.

“As a culture, especially in places like Texas, there is this discomfort with the idea of young people as sexual beings,” Cushman said. “If we can come to terms with the fact that it’s developmentally normal, then it’s imperative that we provide them the education they need to support healthy growth and development.”

Cushman advocates a comprehensive sex-education model, teaching topics such as gender identity and preventing dating violence, as well as pregnancy and disease prevention.

Kindergarten is the place to start with age-appropriate topics such as consent, Cushman said.

“If we teach the need to ask permission to give a hug, that translates into how to ask and give consent for different behaviors once you’re in a romantic relationship,” Cushman said.

John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jaustin@cnhi.com

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