Sex was a taboo subject when Deb Anderson attended Clear Creek Community Schools.
“You just didn’t talk about it back then,” said Anderson, 46, of North Liberty. “Growing up, I learned about it on my own.”
Fast-forward 30 years and few questions are off-limits in the health course required for Clear Creek Amana sophomores, which Anderson’s daughter, Priscilla Hoover, took last year.
“I think what they teach is as good as it gets,” said Hoover, 16, now a high school junior.
Abstinence, HIV education and contraception are among topics the yearlong health course addresses, but not all students in the Corridor receive that wide scope in sexual health education.
A survey by the Sexual Health Alliance of Linn & Johnson Counties showed disparities in curriculum offerings of 21 public high schools in the Corridor.
READ: Sexual health course offerings in Eastern Iowa school districts (story continues below embed)
“Often it is assumed by parents that sex ed is comprehensive and required in high schools, but as our work shows, that is not always the case,” said Hayley Hegland, the coalition’s coordinator and a Linn County Public Health education specialist.
Katie Jones, also an education specialist at Linn County Public Health, said the project’s goal is to let parents and others in the community know what type of sexual health education is being offered for high school students.
Short sexual health units are part of elective wellness classes at many Corridor schools, while others are required and address a range of topics, such as sexting, dating violence and healthy relationships.
Earlier this year, new national sexuality education standards were released by the American Association of Health Education, American School Health Association, National Education Association-Health Information Network and Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education.
The groups noted the standards were developed to address inconsistent implementation of sex education nationwide and the limited time allocated to teaching the topic.
Rather than encourage students to become sexually active, studies have shown that comprehensive sex education programs can help youths delay the onset of sexual activity, reduce the frequency of sexual activity and number of sexual partners and increase condom and contraceptive use, the groups noted.
The National Survey of Family Growth found that teens who received comprehensive sexuality education were 50 percent less likely to report a pregnancy than those who received abstinence-only education.
That is significant, as more than 750,000 women ages 15 to 19 become pregnant every year in the United States. People ages 15 to 25 make up one-quarter of the sexually active population, but contract about half of the 19 million sexually transmitted diseases annually.
Hegland said the Sexual Health Alliance wants parents to realize they need to take responsibility for their children’s knowledge.
“Having conversations with your children about sex is very important and (has) repeatedly been shown to delay sexual activity,” she said.
A new poll by Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Family Circle magazine showed that while 49.1 percent of parents reported feeling very comfortable talking to their child about sexuality, only 17.5 percent of teens feel very comfortable talking to parents.
Talking to parents is part of the homework for Marion High School students, who are required to take a Teen Insights class. The class includes an evidence-based curriculum, said Kayla Kramer, one of the course’s teachers at the school.
“It’s extensive and goes beyond sexual health,” Kramer said of the Safer Choices curriculum, facilitated by a trained sexual health educator from Planned Parenthood of the Heartland.
Reproductive anatomy, sexual harassment and values are among the topics addressed.
Vivian Quinn, who has taught Marion’s Teen Insights course in various forms for 27 years, said the course teaches “real-life topics that students are dealing with.”
“Students feel comfortable asking questions,” Quinn said. “We really try to give them the facts.”
While abstinence is always discussed, she said students are provided other information to support future decision-making.
Marion sophomore Carter Stigge, 15, said an example of a real-life issue the course has addressed is understanding when two people are ready to have sex.
Freshman Tia Biesterveld, 14, who like Stigge, is taking the course now, said she thinks some of the students heed warnings and practice safe sex while others do not.
Sarah Coleman, who developed Clear Creek Amana’s sexual health curriculum, said she encourages students to discuss values with their parents.
“At the end of the day, I want to support that family value,” she said. “I don’t want to replace parents in any way.”