Sex ed policy could undergo dramatic change in Broward schools

Sexual education in Broward Schools may soon look dramatically different, shifting from a comprehensive curriculum to one focused more on abstinence, under proposed changes the School Board will consider.

Entire chapters about birth control, the reproductive system, human anatomy and LGBTQ people would be removed from most sex ed lesson plans, according to a district draft memo called “Family Life and Human Sexuality Curriculum Matrix of Revisions 2022-2023.”

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Drawings of the human body would largely be gone. HIV and AIDS, now mentioned as early as the second grade, wouldn’t be discussed until seventh grade. Puberty and menstrual periods, now mentioned as early as the fourth grade, would be delayed until sixth grade.

“To call these revisions would be kind. Butchering would be more like it,” said Takeata King Pang, executive director of Women’s Foundation of Florida and the administrator of a coalition of education and health experts called the Florida Healthy Youth Alliance.

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“They took one of the most comprehensive and medically accurate curriculums in the state and in the country, and they’ve gone so far backwards,” she said.

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Other proposed changes, which are scheduled for discussion at a March 28 School Board workshop, include:

  • Detailed references to sexual abuse, such as touching a child’s genitals or sexual parts, would be removed and described as “any touch that makes you feel uncomfortable.”
  • Examples of communicable diseases would be removed from the third- and fourth-grade curriculum, including colds, head lice, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis A, tuberculosis, mumps, measles, rubella and other sexually transmitted diseases.
  • In the lesson for seventh and eighth graders, a passage that says someone who thinks they may have an STD “should stop having sex until a doctor says it’s OK” would be changed to “should stop having sex. Abstinence from sexual activity is a certain way” to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
  • An eighth-grade chapter on abstinence omits references to masturbation.
  • In the high school guide, a section on where to find HIV testing sites by city or ZIP code would be removed.

District officials have so far been largely quiet about the proposed changes, refusing to say who made them or why they were made. Two invite-only meetings with “community stakeholders” scheduled for March 13 and 14th were canceled without explanation after a South Florida Sun Sentinel reporter inquired about them.

School Board member Sarah Leonardi invited some community health experts and parents to her own meeting March 13, where the proposed changes were outlined, but participants say no reasons were given for the major changes.

As of Friday afternoon, the district had declined to provide the Sun Sentinel a matrix of the revisions, despite three requests. The newspaper did receive a copy through one of the meeting participants. The chart includes a column to state the rationale for each change, but it’s left blank throughout the entire 22-page document.

“I have no idea why they’re being so secretive, but it’s troubling to me,” Leonardi said.

The district’s approach is far different than in 2014, when the curriculum was first adopted, said Chuck Harper, a parent who chairs the District Advisory Council, a parent group that makes recommendations to the School Board.

“In 2014, it took months of back and forth between stakeholder groups and staff to come to a curriculum that worked for everyone,” he said. “They’re pushing this through in the dark,” he said, adding that the curriculum would be a “huge shift.”

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District spokesman John Sullivan declined to answer most questions asked by the Sun Sentinel. He said in a statement Superintendent Earlean Smiley and the district “look forward” to presenting changes to the sex-ed curriculum as well as a district policy on family and human sexuality education on March 28. He said the material will be posted online prior to that meeting.

“During the workshop, the public will have an opportunity to provide feedback,” Sullivan said in the statement. “Also, both items will return to the School Board at a future meeting(s), allowing for another opportunity for input from our stakeholders.”

But Harper said the three minutes each member of the public gets to speak at meetings — often reduced to a minute or two if there are large numbers of speakers — doesn’t allow the district to have the adequate “back and forth” needed for such an important policy change.

District officials said earlier this year that changes to its sexual education policy would be needed due to the Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed by critics as “Don’t Say Gay.” The law bans classroom instruction of sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3, and requires it be “age appropriate” in older grades.

“It really feels like we’re going way beyond what’s required by law,” Leonardi said.

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Broward has been using a comprehensive sex education program called “FLASH,” developed by health officials in Seattle and King County, Wash., that discusses both abstinence and protection for those who have sex.

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The first indication that the program was going through a dramatic change came Feb. 27, the day the state Department of Education asked school districts to list what sex education curricula they were using. Without public notice or School Board approval, the district posted a highly redacted version of the FLASH curriculum on the district’s sex education website. The district removed the edited curriculum and returned the old one online after the Sun Sentinel inquired. The decision to post the non-approved curriculum happened “inadvertently,” and was corrected once Smiley became aware, Sullivan said in early March.

In the Feb. 27 questionnaire to the state, the district described the FLASH comprehensive sex ed program as “abstinence-plus,” a type of sex ed curriculum that stresses abstinence but makes some mention of contraception. The district said in the survey the curriculum had been modified to comply with the Parental Rights Law, even though the revised curriculum had not been approved.

It’s unclear whether the publishers would allow the district to use the FLASH program now that it focuses more on abstinence.

“We did talk with Broward County. We explained: the FLASH curriculum is developed, maintained, and copyrighted by Public Health — Seattle & King County. No other organization may revise and publish the material without our written permission,” Kate Cole, a spokeswoman for the health department, told the Sun Sentinel in an email Friday.

She wouldn’t say whether her office had granted Broward County permission to make the changes.

“Educators have lots of flexibility in how they implement any curriculum, depending on their local and state policies,” Cole said. “They can exclude activities and lessons, based on direction from their school district.”