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.”