SHERIDAN — The birds do it. The bees do it. And few in local schools want to talk about it. Yet, according to a 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 47 percent of high school students in Wyoming reported ever having sex.
A dreaded topic for teenagers and school officials alike, sex education standards remain ambiguous nationwide.
Curriculum changes from district to district. Sheridan County is no different.
What works, what counts as working and what the school’s place is in the education process has been grounds for controversy throughout the country.
While the Wyoming Department of Education provides guidelines for health and sex education, the decision on how and if it is taught is ultimately up to the individual districts.
Currently 19 states require that sex education — if taught — must be medically accurate, according to a report on State Policies on Sex Education in Schools by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Wyoming is not one of these states. It also doesn’t mandate that sexual education be taught at all.
The WDE has created standards on which Wyoming schools can base their health courses. The Wyoming Health Education Content and Performance Standards were reevaluated in 2011 and have been used since.
According to the document, standards are “designed to allow school districts flexibility in determining which health risk categories and traditional content areas are most relevant and meaningful to their students and that should be addressed in their local curriculum.”
The document provides guidelines and four standards to be reached: critical thinker, effective communicator, self-directed learner and responsible, productive citizen.
Content standards outline benchmarks, but their interpretation is left up to the districts.
It comes down to “knowing your community” when teaching, said Helen Grutkowski, the physical education and health teacher at Sheridan High School.
She and Jessica Pickett — another Sheridan County District 2 educator — teach the sex ed course at Sheridan High School. The curriculum, which is a part of the health class, is “abstinence based” they both said.
SHS and Sheridan Junior High School focus on sexually transmitted infections and how to prevent them. Other than short discussions on condoms at SHS, contraception isn’t a focus. Instead the classes focus on decision making, consent and local resources for help and/or information.
During the unit, the class is visited by Sheridan organizations like the Advocacy and Resource Center and Sheridan County Public Health.
Pickett said the involvement of the community has strengthened SHS’s program.
There are still areas that could be improved, however community response creates hesitancy, the teachers said. While lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and couples are mentioned if necessary, Pickett and Grutkowski do not go into depth on those topics.
“I’m not sure we’re ready for that in our community,” Grutkowski said.
However they both know LGBT students are in their classes. In some cases, LGBT students may not feel safe bringing up questions around other students, they said. While disease prevention can be informative across the board, Grutkowski and Pickett let their students know — regardless of gender or orientation — that they are welcome to speak privately with either one of them. Parents are welcomed too.
In Sheridan County District 3 the topic of sex ed is more cut and dry. The curriculum is fully abstinence based. While high schoolers are talked to briefly about condoms, birth control is not covered, said Jannan Clabaugh, a teacher at SCSD3.
Students are taught about saying “no” to sex and watch videos on how babies develop.
At Sheridan County School District 1, the standards are closer to SCSD2, however curriculum is currently being drafted.
Similar to SHS, education about related topics like puberty starts at lower grade levels and the main focus for high school students in SCSD1 is disease prevention and abstinence.
If the draft curriculum moves forward, through seventh and eighth grade, SCSD1 students will have a topic on differentiating sexual harassment from joking and flirting. Additionally, the district would cover appropriate ways to show affection while dating.
By high school, students under the proposed curriculum would cover the reproductive systems, present facts on teen pregnancy and prevention and learn about the causes and prevention of sexually transmitted infections.
Key focuses for grades nine through 12 in SCSD1 would be: health info, products and resources, problem solving and decision making, effective communication and personal and social responsibly. These standards apply to all topics covered in the wellness program and not just sex ed.
While curriculum is under review, John Scott at Tongue River High School said previous wellness education was abstinence based.
As of 2015, 20 states require sex education. The NCLS says sexual education is taught in schools because, “Though the teen birth rate has declined to its lowest levels since data collection began, the United States still has the highest teen birth rate in the industrialized world.” This is a concern, the report said, because teen mothers and their children face higher health and economic risks.