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Sex education in North Carolina: The basic facts

We know that adolescents who participate in comprehensive sexuality education programs have lower rates of unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

Posted Updated
Holding hands
Robin Pittman
, Poe Center for Health Education senior health educator
Editor's note: This article originally appeared on the Poe Center for Health Education's website.

“Isn’t my child too young to learn about periods?” “What if I don’t feel comfortable with what you’re teaching?” “Are you going to teach them about sexual intercourse?” “Do they have to attend the sex-ed class?”

As a health educator for over 20 years, these are some of the common questions and concerns parents express to me when it comes to sexuality education classes taught in North Carolina. Thanks to the partnership the Poe Center has with the NC Department of Public Instruction and role with school systems across North Carolina, I am in a position to reassure them that the sexual health programs schools use have very positive results for youth.

We know that adolescents who participate in comprehensive sexuality education programs have lower rates of unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Therefore, the Poe Center works with school systems across North Carolina to deliver medically accurate and age-appropriate information through our Family Life programs, which are offered to students starting in fourth grade.

Our hope is that families are equipped with accurate information so they feel comfortable continuing with their own conversations at home.

Here are a few things parents should know about sex ed in NC schools.

Are their guidelines or rules as to what can and can’t be taught?

Yes. In 2009, North Carolina adopted a state law called the Healthy Youth Act. This law updated the state’s previous sexuality education programs in public schools to make it more comprehensive. Called Reproductive Health and Safety Education, it provides medically accurate information on the physical and emotional risks of sex before marriage, the benefits to being abstinent and FDA-approved methods on how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Additionally, this sex education program addresses the whole child, and students receive information about sexual assault, consent, healthy relationships, goal setting, decision making, values and communication. Ultimately, Reproductive Health and Safety Education is about educating youth about what is happening to their bodies and also teaching them to make smart, healthy, and safe choices as they go through adolescence.

Is there a statewide curriculum?

No. Each county has local control over choosing their own sex education curricula for their respective school districts. However, the curricula they choose must cover all the topics outlined by the Healthy Youth Act. These topics are identified in the Healthful Living Essential Standards created by the Department of Public Instruction. Each essential standard covers age appropriate content. These standards meet competency objectives for every grade level in physical education and health education.

Does sex education work?

Yes! Knowledge is power. Research from NC Youth Connected demonstrated that students who participated in a sex education class were less likely to have sex during their adolescent years, were less likely to experience an unintended pregnancy, and were less likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease. Visit SHIFT NC for additional data on the sexual health of NC.

Do most parents want their child to participate in sex education?

Across our state, we are finding that most parents do want their child involved in sex education in school. According to a survey conducted by SHIFT NC in 2009, 91.8% of parents polled think sexuality education should be taught in school.

Can parents opt out of their child participating in sex ed?

Every parent has the right to know what is being taught to their child. All schools must have their respective sex education curriculum available for parents to review if they wish. However, if a parent is still not comfortable with their child being taught these lessons, they do have the right to have their child opt out of the classes.

How can parents help with their child’s sex education?

The primary goal for school systems, staff, teachers, and health educators from organizations such as health departments and the Poe Center is to teach medically accurate information and to partner with parents to keep the conversations going. The goal is to serve as a resource – not a replacement – for parents and faith communities.

We encourage parents and guardians to partner with their school and teachers. Take the opportunity to review the materials and learn about the curriculum. Do not be afraid to reach out and ask questions if you are uncertain or nervous about a particular topic. As we always say to children, “knowledge is power." That goes for parents, too.

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