TAMPA — Earlier this year, Seth Barack’s life science teacher announced a class project. She told the fifth-graders at MacFarlane Park Elementary to find a partner, choose a body part and give a presentation on it.
Seth, 11, chose the urinary tract — an innocent move that didn’t align with school district guidelines, said his mother, Lynda Barack.
The boys could do the presentation. But they couldn’t use visual aids like the other kids. The body part they chose was too close to the genitals, Seth’s teacher said.
“They were not allowed to use the words penis or vagina,” Barack recalled.
She has joined a fledgling movement of parents and community members in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties who are speaking out about sex education in area schools.
They say the curriculums are not explicit enough. And they worry that kids don’t have enough information — or that they get it too late — to protect themselves against the risks of sexual intimacy.
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Both counties continue to outpace the statewide rate at which adolescents contract sexually transmitted diseases, Florida Department of Health data shows. In 2017, more than 2,800 people 18 and younger were infected across the two counties.
School officials in both counties say they’re on the brink of reviewing sex education practices, but no public discussions have been scheduled.
Efforts to address issue at the state level have fallen flat. As in the past, a bill sponsored by Democrats this year to strengthen curriculum requirements statewide was largely ignored.
“There is a group of people who are just not open to having this honest discussion,” said Sen. Lori Berman, D-Palm Beach, who sponsored the failed bill in the Florida Senate. “They won’t allow this issue to be discussed, either in the Legislature or in our schools.”
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Each year since 2007, young people in Hillsborough and Pinellas have contracted diseases like chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis at a higher rate than the state average.
The most recent health department data available, from 2017, shows Pinellas at a rate of 663 infections per 100,000 adolescents. That’s 12th-highest of Florida’s 67 counties. Hillsborough was closer to the state average, ranking 33rd.
Though infection rates have fluctuated over time, they’ve trended upward in recent years. Hillsborough had the second-highest number of cases in 2017, data shows, while Pinellas had the seventh.
“We’re off the charts as a county,” said Hillsborough School Board member Lynn Gray, a former teacher. “There are things out there that are demanding urgency, for us to intervene and keep these kids safe.”
Worried by the statistics, the district is trying to address the issue, said Ashlee Cappucci, who supervises health for Hillsborough public schools.
Hillsborough is one of 15 Florida districts, including neighboring Pasco County, that in 2017 adopted comprehensive sex education. That means kids learn about abstinence but also contraception methods, like condoms.
Students receive their first sex-related lesson in seventh grade, from science teachers who explain the “pathology of diseases,” Capucci said. But they don’t talk explicitly about sex until high school.
Some kids are having sex earlier than that, said Ellen Daley, a professor and researcher at the University of South Florida who specializes in adolescent health. Her studies have shown that one in four Florida ninth-graders, and one in three sophomores, have already had sex.
Health department data show that 40 percent of adolescents did not use a condom the last time they had sex. One in five used drugs or alcohol beforehand.
“If (high school) is the first time they’re hearing this information, it’s way too late,” Daley said. “It’s so grossly unfair to our kids that the risks they may be taking … are kind of dependent on the politics of their school board.”
Florida law gives local school boards near-full authority to decide how kids learn about sex, requiring only that students are taught “awareness of the benefits of sexual abstinence as the expected standard and the consequences of teenage pregnancy.”
The law instructs school officials to pick “appropriate curriculum which reflects local values and concerns.” That means what students get varies county to county. It can look different classroom to classroom, too.
Most districts use one of three teaching methods: Comprehensive, like Hillsborough, abstinence-only or abstinence-plus. Pinellas employs abstinence-plus, meaning contraception is discussed, but there is more of a focus on encouraging students to refrain from sexual activity.
Ashley Grimes, who oversees health for Pinellas public schools, said the curriculum is “as close as it can get to comprehensive.” The only difference is that teachers aren’t permitted to talk about condoms in the context of preventing pregnancy, only disease.
About 340 high school-aged girls in Pinellas got pregnant between 2015 and 2017, according to the health department, putting the county on par with the state’s average teen pregnancy rate. That figure was nearly double in Hillsborough.
Pinellas students can see a condom demonstration from a teacher in seventh grade, but only if they get a form signed by a parent or guardian.
“Not all kids have parents they can talk to about that; not all kids have parents who are going to opt in,” said Linsey Grove, a visiting instructor on public health at USF St. Petersburg and co-chairwoman of the Empowering Pinellas Youth Collaborative, which is pushing for the school district to revamp its sex education.
About 60 percent of middle school students and less than 70 percent of high school students in Pinellas reported talking to an adult family member about sex on the district's health survey for the past two years. At least half of students at both levels said they had never heard of human papillomavirus, or HPV, the most common infection passed through sex that can sometimes lead to cancer.
“A lot of parents know this is an important talk but just don't even know where to start,” said Rachel Rapkin, a gynecologist, assistant professor at USF and staff physician at Planned Parenthood.
She recently organized a sex talk at a library in Hillsborough for fourth- and fifth-grade students whose parents think the school district is holding too much back from their kids.
In Pinellas, Ridgecrest Elementary parent Becca Tieder sees the need for more education, too.
Schools keeping information about sex from kids “is like teaching a kid to drive a car but not wear a seat belt,” Tieder contends. “They're omitting something that could save their lives, and to do so is a gross misstep.”
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Unlike Hillsborough, Pinellas allows teachers to invite speakers to class to supplement their lessons. Presenters are vetted by a committee but vary widely on topic, according to a list of people and organizations that have visited district schools.
The religion-based group More2Life, for example, is approved to teach students about choices. Its website is more specific, saying it aims to teach youth to “avoid risky behaviors such as … sex outside of marriage.”
Meanwhile, nonprofit Metro Wellness teaches “transmission protection” and “HIV/AIDS and STD prevention,” according to the district.
“What I'm hearing is that (what a student learns) really varies depending on the school and the teacher’s comfort level,” said Julia Sharp, the second co-chairwoman of the county's youth collaborative and a parent who will have two children in Pinellas schools next year.
Sharp and Grove, the USF instructor, are pushing for more consistency.
“To talk about (sexually transmitted diseases) and unintended pregnancy is uncomfortable with kids at this age,” Sharp said, “and without a set curriculum, teachers are able to pull whatever they think is appropriate.”
The collaborative recently distributed lime-green postcards decorated with birds and bees that say: “I support comprehensive, inclusive, evidence-based, developmentally appropriate sex ed in Pinellas County Schools.”
The School Board office has received more than 200 of them.
“It is time that we put the children first and implement a sex ed that is effective and reflective of what the children need,” said one note, signed by Daisy Delatorre.
At least three people, including one who said she had an abortion, wrote about how better sex education during their childhoods could have changed their lives. A few identified themselves as health professionals, and talked about working with young mothers and HIV-infected youth.
“It is your responsibility to educate,” wrote Ginni Oster of St. Petersburg. “Take that responsibility seriously. … If you don’t, people (kids) will get hurt and spread disease."
Pinellas School Board members Eileen Long, Nicole Carr and Bill Dudley each said they want to talk about changes to the curriculum. The board recently agreed to discuss the topic at a future workshop.
“We've seen the increase in sexually transmitted diseases, and that proves we need to take another look,” said Carr. She said she wants to see teachers talk more about what it means to consent to sex. Long, like the collaborative, says discussions need to be more inclusive for LGBTQ students.
“I used to say it was up to the family, but it’s not anymore,” she added. “We need to look at it.”
In Hillsborough, Capucci's office is reviewing a variety of sex education curricula, trying to determine how to use grant money recently received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The work is in direct response to climbing rates of sexually transmitted diseases, said School Board member Steve Cona.
The district is collaborating with medical experts, teachers, parents and community members to get feedback on what topics should be covered. Whatever is chosen will eventually come to the School Board for approval.
“Some believe we should be more explicit in our instruction," said Vice Chairwoman Melissa Snively. But “many parents have indicated a desire to move away from this type of subliminal encouragement to have sex.”
It’s a topic that breeds divisiveness. But parents are saying loud and clear that they want more in-depth sex education for their kids, said Gray, the former teacher who sits on the board.
“Every minute that we do not talk to a child or engage with a child about this could really change the trajectory of that child's life,” she said.
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.