Las Vegas’ sex ed debate needs transparency 

Could this be the year that the Clark County School District — the nation’s fifth largest — updates its sex education curriculum? A Jan. 11 meeting of the district’s Sex Education Advisory Committee points to that possibility. Then again, we’ve been here before.

According to the agenda and backup materials for the Jan. 11 committee meeting – which were available online, then curiously removed last week, and are now back again – there was discussion of updates to current sex ed curriculum, including materials on how to obtain contraceptives; how to teach consent and statutory rape; and a lengthy update to CDC STI information. Discussion of consent and sexual assault would be an important update to the current curriculum, which according to district course outlines, is not addressed at all. Information about contraceptives seems like a no-brainer in a sex education curriculum, but outside of state-mandated information about HIV/AIDS (Nevada Revised Statutes 389.065, pdf, last updated 1987), there is scant evidence that CCSD teachers are giving any information about even the most basic form of contraceptive: condoms. 

Of course, if CCSD made their entire sex education curriculum available to the public, not just vaguely worded, bulletpoint outlines, such as this pdf  — as Reno’s Washoe County School District does, here — we would know exactly what is being taught and could have an informed discussion about it. Instead, parents are left in the dark, which only serves to heighten speculation and fuel spurious arguments perpetuated by chicken-little fearmongers.

If the school board votes to approve these recommendations (meeting still TBD), we’d be getting the most rudimentary, albeit vital, improvements to the curriculum. There’s still no mention of sexual orientations or gender identities (including transgender, gender non-conforming, or gender-queer). And what about the anecdotal evidence that teachers are forcing an (unofficial) abstinence-only curriculum – or not teaching sex ed at all in some cases – something rightfully and embarrassingly lampooned on The Daily Show last year. And then there’s that looming question about the opt-in policy, something only two states in the entire country use, according to the Guttmacher Institute, pdf.

Even these few updates to the curriculum will, no doubt, garner public scrutiny and potential backlash. Although, I have to ask – who are the people who would argue against teaching kids what a condom is and what consent means? I have become increasingly wary of the handful of people who turn out at the school board meetings throwing dispersions on any hint of progress. Not only are the loudest minority of – wait, are they all even parents? – people getting to run the floor, but in the absence of any sentient voice to oppose them, they can become the default stance in the media, too. Remember, our apathy allows fear-based ideology to replace science-based objective teaching, both in the public discourse and, eventually, in the classroom.

This reminds me of a story my mother-in-law told me about when her sons were young and the Anchorage school board was looking at updates to their sex ed curriculum. My mother-in-law, herself a teacher, didn’t plan on going to the meetings because she agreed with the proposed updates, but then her husband reminded her of potential opposition. “He said, ‘It’s because we agree that we have to go. We can’t let the opposition run the meeting and seem like they are the majority simply because those who agree with the changes don’t show up,’” she told me. It’s a good reminder that we must stay vigilant, even when it seems like a slam-dunk. (Incidentally, because of testimony from parents and teachers, like my in-laws, those updates passed.)

More importantly, in the social media age, where do you want your kids to be getting their information? Teens already have access to free condoms at the Southern Nevada Health District. It only makes sense they should know how and why to use them. And, sadly, rape is still a thing. Indeed, there are apps that help you document and report rape. But what good is technology if one doesn’t have the knowledge needed to make use of it? All too often people can go through life not having the words to name the violence they experienced. I can’t tell you how many adults have said to me, “I always knew that it felt wrong, but I didn’t know that it was rape until now.” I’m talking about college-educated, professional adults saying this. What a terrible price to pay to ignorance, not of their own making, but as collateral damage to the fears of lawmakers and communities without a conscience.

The truth is, kids are either going to try and find information on an increasingly dubious internet or they can get medically accurate, age-appropriate information from trusted authorities, which, yes, includes parents, but can get a big assist from knowledgeable teachers.

Of course, this is all predicated on the information in classrooms being current; on teachers hands being untethered from knee-jerk reactionaries who want to stymie them; and from a school board who is not trying to usurp the authority of the state-mandated sex ed advisory committee. Just a few months ago, the school board voted to have the first say on curriculum updates — leap-frogging the established process and good faith efforts of the advisory committee, who is supposed to get first crack at the curriculum. And, let’s circle back to the committee agenda and background information from earlier this month. Playing peekaboo with the process hardly engenders faith in the system.

The journalist in me can’t help but wonder who has something to hide by continually placing roadblocks to transparency. It’s already a Herculean effort to get your hands on anything more than a course outline, despite the fact that classroom-level curriculum is required by law to be available to any parent who asks to see it. Isn’t this why we’re supposed to have permission slips signed in order for kids to go to sex ed? Isn’t the point of these opt-in forms to be so parents can police what is being taught to their kids? This is adding unnecessary frustration to an already difficult issue, for all sides.

Perhaps this could have been avoided if any of the past three sessions of the Nevada Legislature had passed a comprehensive sex education bill, which would not only unify all 17 counties with age-appropriate, medically accurate sex education, but it would take this quagmire off the backs of local school districts. Now, the quality of a student’s sex education varies greatly by where that student lives in the state. For instance, students in Lyon County are still learning about the concept of “secondary virginity” in 2016, while students in Reno’s Washoe County School District are already learning about the concept of consent as well as a wide variety of contraceptives. (Find out for yourself how tricky sex ed in Nevada is with my quiz.)

It’s a disservice to Nevada’s next generation that the gulf of knowledge should be so cavernous. Yes, it was a bloody knuckle fight in 2013, but let’s not take our eye off the prize: comprehensive sex education for all. In the absence of an update to state law, we’re left mud-wrestling with ideologues at the county level — 17 times. And perhaps there’s no battleground more important than what happens in Las Vegas, because despite the old ad slogan, what happens here matters.

Check back next week for a new column, read more of my work at Vegas Seven, follow me @TheSinCitySiren and get daily news on Facebook.

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