Much about sex education has changed since Susan Johnson-Staples taught the subject for Oklahoma City Public Schools in the 1980s.
Back then, Johnson-Staples was a home economics and personal development teacher who discussed the birds and bees with students in great detail.
“We had a longer length of time to talk about relationships, to talk about intimacy, to talk about refusal skills, to talk about the use of contraception,” recalled Johnson-Staples, now the district's director of college and career readiness and guidance services.
“Those were the kinds of things that were discussed, but they were discussed in a very structured, sequential and age-appropriate manner.”
The state's largest school district no longer offers sex education courses, choosing instead to teach related content that applies to core subjects like physiology and elective courses such as adult and family living.
By law, public schools in Oklahoma are not required to teach sex education but must provide AIDS prevention education.
And that has Johnson-Staples and others concerned, including those who track births and sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers.
“I believe that given everything that is happening in society today it would be helpful to offer good quality programs,” Johnson-Staples said. “In the absence of healthy, accurate information, kids are going to find their own answers. Kids are really misinformed in a lot of areas when it comes to those things.”
The number of teen births and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) has prompted concern among administrators with state and local health departments.
Statewide, 21,307 cases of sexually transmitted diseases, including 20 cases of HIV, were reported among those ages 15 to 19 in 2012, according to the state Health Department.
“Based on the STD rate that we're seeing in adolescents, it's obvious that there's an educational need regarding sexual health,” said Kristen Eberly, who manages the Health Department's HIV and STD programs.
“When we talk to newly diagnosed individuals, oftentimes they tell us they didn't know they're putting themselves at risk for HIV because they were never taught how to protect themselves.”
Although teen birthrates across the country continue to decline, Oklahoma still has one of the highest teen birthrates in the country, said Thad Burk, who studies disease and analyzes trends for the Health Department.
Statewide, there were 47.8 births per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19 in 2011, the fifth-highest rate in the country, Burk said. In Oklahoma County the birthrate was 56.2.
Oklahoma is one of the only states that does not mandate school districts to provide comprehensive health education, which includes sex education.
“I think if you look at simply the birthrates, you can say that yes, there is a need for more comprehensive sexuality education,” said Linsey Garlington, teen pregnancy prevention program supervisor for the Oklahoma City-County Health Department. “We believe that parents are the first and most important educators of their children. We hope that they're getting information from a trusted adult.”
The AIDS scare changed the way parents, educators and lawmakers looked at sex education and in 1987, legislation was passed requiring public schools to teach AIDS prevention.
“I think that brought about a more-inclusive awareness,” Johnson-Staples said. “More parents got involved in the process and started asking questions, calling or coming to school.”
In the early 1990s, the district stopped teaching students about contraception in favor of abstinence.
“I would say our overriding goal is that we want to teach kids that participating in sexually activity is a choice and that it can lead to things and that abstinence is probably the safest way to avoid anything,” Johnson-Staples said.
Debbie Johnson oversees about three dozen nurses for the Oklahoma City district as health services administrator. Those nurses teach human growth and development to fourth- and fifth-graders.
“We are very open and honest with them about the things they are going through,” she said. “But when they ask me questions about sexuality I tell them, ‘that's a conversation you should have with mom or dad.'”
And that's where sex education often gets lost in translation, said Johnson, a former elementary school nurse.
“I just don't think people sit down and have the conversations they need to have with their kids, and I don't think the kids sit down and have the conversations they need to have with their parents,” she said. “They listen to their peers and older siblings.”
Under state law, parents have the right to inspect all curriculum and material used in connection with a sex education class or program designed to discuss sexual behavior or attitudes.
The Oklahoma City district provides permission slips for parents to sign only if they do not want their child to be exposed to such content.
“We still will have those parents who truly believe that this is a subject matter that needs to be addressed at home and not in a school setting,” Johnson-Staples said.
It is unclear how many of Oklahoma's more than 500 school districts teach sex education.
“They're not required to report it to us, so we don't have a way to count it,” said Tricia Pemberton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.
Students who choose to disregard the district's message of abstinence are encouraged to talk to their parents and their doctors, Johnson-Staples said.