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Hillsborough schools are phasing in a new sex ed curriculum

Lessons seek to strengthen students’ communication skills so they can make informed decisions.
Discussing sex education on Nov. 15 in Tampa are Christian conservative Terry Kemple, university health services coordinator Linsey Grove, Planned Parenthood outreach educator Paola Ferst and Hillsborough schools physical education and health supervisor Ashlee Cappucci. Not shown: County PTA Council President Damaris Allen. [MARLENE SOKOL]
Published Nov. 15
Updated Nov. 15

TAMPA — Students at 13 Hillsborough County public schools are getting expanded instruction in sexual health, a change that seeks to satisfy differing philosophies about some volatile social issues.

They are being advised to abstain from sexual intercourse, but also taught about contraceptive devices and how their lives would change if they became teen parents. They are being taught to respect students of varying gender identities and sexual orientation, including slurs to avoid and ways they can encourage others to become more tolerant.

The overarching goal is to empower students to make informed choices on matters that will affect their health and their lives.

But can this be done in transparency, and without a public uproar?

Earlier this year in Pasco County, after the school district presented a state-approved, research-based curriculum to the School Board, the response was so harsh that Superintendent Kurt Browning sent the whole project back to staff for a second look.

In Hillsborough, district leaders have been cautious in how they release information and are taking pains to be inclusive both inside and outside the classroom.

“We really have designed a curriculum that is free of shame or scare factors,” said Ashlee Cappucci, director of secondary physical and health education, who addressed a Tiger Bay Club audience Friday.

Public health is a driving force behind the changes that already have begun in five high schools. Hillsborough is one of several Florida districts that are getting grant funding from the Centers for Disease Control, which hopes to use sexual health education to reduce the spread of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.

Recent risk behavior studies show more than a third of high school students in Hillsborough and throughout Florida have had sexual intercourse. Of them, 58 percent used condoms in their last encounter.

Hillsborough, which is eligible for as much as $300,000 a year in grant funds, created a new position for a coordinator of public health education, assembled a large committee of district staff and other stakeholders, and reviewed existing curriculum. Those they consulted included conservative Christian activist Terry Kemple, a panelist Friday and an outspoken critic of the Pasco plan.

The lessons are now being taught to ninth-graders at Alonso, King, Tampa Bay Technical, Jefferson and South County Career high schools. In the spring, they will reach eighth-graders at Buchanan, Ferrell, Franklin, Madison, Memorial, Pierce and Young middle schools and Woodson K-8. An evaluation will follow before possibly expanding the lessons districtwide.

Educators say that as a first step, teachers must create a classroom atmosphere that is conducive to conversations of the most intimate nature. “It needs to be a safe place where we can talk about sexual health and nobody’s made fun of,” Cappucci said. So broader concepts about bullying and respect are taught before the topic turns to sexual health.

The changes have not been discussed at any School Board meeting or workshop. They were explained at a meeting of the district’s Citizen Advisory Committee. A Parentlink message went out to high school and middle school families. But it provided no details or precise timeline.

District leaders did, however, meet one-on-one with the School Board members in detailed sessions, showing them all the lessons in a thick binder. “The nature of the topic is probably why they did it the way they did,” said board member Melissa Snively, whose conservative east Hillsborough district is a likely source of opposition.

Snively said board members appreciated being briefed so they would be prepared for any questions or rumors. She also appreciated being able to give feedback as she believed the lessons, which were later revised, treated abstinence “like an afterthought.”

District spokeswoman Tanya Arja, however, said abstinence has always been a strong theme.

The binder materials, which the Times received after a public records request, back up Arja’s statement. Students are taught that refraining from sexual conduct is free, has no adverse health affects, and is the only guarantee against pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and other harmful consequences, which can include emotional trauma. Students are told that “waiting and saying ‘no’ doesn’t make you different, it is a personal choice.”

The lessons acknowledge that some students will not feel comfortable discussing the class topics. Teachers are advised to have sticky note pads available so a student can pass a note to the teacher, indicating his or her discomfort. In some schools, there is an online comment box for that purpose.

Gender identity and LGBTQ issues are addressed in a lesson on safe and supportive environments. The message is that students should respect one another “when aspects of their sexuality (such as sexual activity, sexual abstinence, sexual orientation, gender expression, or gender identity) are different from one’s own.” There are components on “being an ally” and “circles of change,” intended to promote tolerance beyond the classroom walls.

With the exception of Kemple, Friday’s Tiger Bay group endorsed the program enthusiastically, even if some students come away with messages that are different from what they are told at home.

“What an excellent opportunity to teach our children critical thinking,” said Damaris Allen, president of the county council of PTA’s. “I am not afraid of the school district saying something that I disagree with, because I know we will have conversation and growth will happen out of that.”

Kemple said the risk behavior survey questions seemed to encourage students to have sex. He said the curriculum was “inclusive for everybody except those whose values don’t include acknowledging LGBTQ.”

He was booed by some in the crowd and applauded by others.

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