Hillsborough reaffirms its sex education curriculum after challenge fails

A 5-2 school board vote means the lessons for seventh, eighth and ninth grade students will go forward.
Audience members listen during a Nov. 17, 2022, public hearing on Hillsborough County's sex education curriculum. The curriculum was later upheld by a judge and approved Thursday by the school board.
Audience members listen during a Nov. 17, 2022, public hearing on Hillsborough County's sex education curriculum. The curriculum was later upheld by a judge and approved Thursday by the school board. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Jan. 12|Updated Jan. 12

Opponents of Hillsborough County’s sex education curriculum had a second chance to air their views on Thursday, more than a month after a hearing officer deemed the materials and lessons legal and appropriate.

The school board took a second vote and approved the curriculum 5-2, with board members Stacy Hahn and Patti Rendon dissenting.

The lessons have been modified since the state this year enacted the Parental Rights in Education law, which discourages sexually explicit content. This year’s version includes fewer items about gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, a conservative organization conducted a campaign that generated thousands of petitions against the lessons for seventh, eighth and ninth grade.

Among the complaints in the petition:

  • Teacher instruction includes training that could lead students into gender confusion.
  • Some lessons are delivered in a way that would lead 12-year-olds to believe that they can both give and receive consent to engage in sexual intercourse.
  • There are “graphic” drawings and pictures of genitalia with parts named to be discussed in small coed groups.

Critics, including many who spoke at a hearing on Nov. 17 before retired judge Claudia Rickert Isom, described the materials as pornographic.

Isom, in her Nov. 30 report and recommendation, disagreed.

“My review of the curricula does not support the objections that it contains pornography and depictions of sexual activity,” she wrote. “The medical textbook-style illustrations that are provided to students are needed to correctly identify the medical terms for reproductive anatomy. The videos included in the curricula use cartoon style characters to illustrate points.”

While the challenge coincides with the controversial Parental Rights in Education Law, it is not directly related to it. The challenge was allowed under existing Florida law, which requires school boards to publicly consider their sex education curriculum annually and establishes a 30-day period for parents and other county residents to object.

Terry Kemple, an activist who organized the petitions, said Thursday that the materials violate the parental rights law. He argued that, while the law directs schools to recommend that students discuss personal and mental health matters with their parents, the district’s materials steer students to the nonprofit organization Teen Connect Tampa Bay.

In doing so, Kemple said, educators are straying from a state mandate to promote abstinence. The Teen Connect website includes information about birth control, which can prevent unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

“That’s not promoting abstinence,” Kemple said. “And that’s something that the parents should tell them, not you.”

Parents and pastors said the lessons encourage students to be sexually active too early. They took issue with the way the curriculum was developed, disclosed to the public and ultimately approved, saying there were violations of state laws, including the public meetings law.

Hahn and Rendon took those criticisms to heart. “There clearly have been multiple sunshine violations,” Hahn said. “There is no shame in saying we got it wrong and we need to start over.”

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Attorneys for the board and district have assured them that the process they followed was lawful. The other five board members spoke in favor of the curriculum and the approval process.

Board member Lynn Gray said she favored an approach that gives student facts, “not from their peers, not from their cell phones.” That way, she said, “they will make more reliable decisions.”

Board member Karen Perez added: “Just because a young person is taught how to stay safe and what sex and sexuality is, they’re not encouraged to become sexually active.”