The Duval County school district has published new, proposed sex education materials ahead of a public vote next month. The new textbooks would replace longstanding middle- and high-school sex-ed curricula in response to new Florida laws and outcry from some local parents against the former curricula’s California-based publishing company.
Critics of the plan fear throwing out the former curricula could undo the last decade’s progress in decreasing the rates of students who are sexually active and who experience sexual violence.
“If you’ve been in a middle school, if you’ve been in elementary school, if you see what our students are exposed to every day – they’re learning this information,” School Board Chair Darryl Willie said during a workshop on the new curriculum last month. “We have professionals who can actually have that conversation with them, and I think we’re actually doing the exact opposite of what we need to do.”
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Under a 2021 state law, Florida school districts are newly required to get public input and vote on sex-education curriculum annually, a policy the School Board formally adopted Tuesday and will implement for the first time next month.
The Duval County School Board also voted Tuesday to allow condom demonstrations using “medically accurate props” in high schools. Condom demonstrations using fingers only will still be allowed in eighth-grade classrooms — without props. Conservative parent groups Moms for Liberty and County Citizens Defending Freedom had railed against the use of props in middle school sex-ed classes during recent School Board meetings.
What’s still up for debate are the district’s “supplemental materials” — those lessons that go beyond state-approved health textbooks to teach state-required topics like abstinence and sexually transmitted diseases.
The former middle school curriculum, Draw the Line/Respect the Line, would be replaced with a companion resource to the existing health textbook. In high school, the Reducing the Risk curriculum would be replaced with a 44-page add-on to the current health textbook.
In fifth grade, the Always Changing curriculum on puberty, split by gender, will stay put. The district also says, “HealthSmart will continue to be used for federal health education concepts in grades K-4.”
Duval Schools’ Chief Academic Officer Paula Renfro says the biggest differences between the tossed-out curricula and the ones being proposed are the “scenarios” used to demonstrate the concepts.
“There was some concern with some of the scenarios. Although the prior supplemental curriculum is skills-based, there are more stories associated with the prior curriculum,” Renfro says. In the new textbook add-ons, “There are scenarios but they look different. They don’t look as much like stories.”
The changes are being celebrated by advocates like local parent Melissa Bernhardt with County Citizens Defend Freedom, a group that’s been speaking out against sex ed textbooks in other Florida counties as well.
“I’m extremely excited that a new book was offered and that you’re in the process of reviewing it,” Bernhardt told the Duval School Board in mid-October. “This board is really coming along and doing excellent things.”
Superintendent Diana Greene pulled the former curriculum from consideration after the school year started, in mid-September, amidst pushback from parents like Bernhardt who called the materials “inappropriate” ahead of the newly required annual vote.
Duval’s former curricula materials were distributed by the California-based nonprofit ETR – which stands for Education, Training and Research. The right-wing political advocacy group Family Research Council and County Citizens Defend Freedom have targeted the 40-year-old organization for its use of props in comprehensive sex ed curricula, and the nonprofit’s response to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law.
University of North Florida public health Professor Elissa Barr, who has worked as a research coordinator for Duval Schools and helped train teachers to use the ETR materials, says they should never have been pulled.
“The supplemental materials that we’ve been using now for over 10 years, not only have they been effective – and we’ve seen major improvements in our data, which we have all that documented – they’re very comprehensive in nature,” Barr tells Jacksonville Today.
She has been collecting data from schools about how many parents opted their kids out of classes using the former curricula, and says less than 0.001% of parents took issue.
Existing state law already had strict requirements about how schools can teach about sex: Schools must teach abstinence “as the expected standard.” State law also requires schools to teach about sexually transmitted diseases and teach “the benefits of monogamous heterosexual marriage” — which both the former and the proposed curriculum comply with, according to the district.
The district first proposed ETR materials for all grade levels ahead of the newly required vote at the September board meeting. But just before the meeting, Greene pulled the materials and said the district would develop its own curricula from scratch.
Since then, the district has changed course: adopting the new workbooks as supplements to its current health and physical education textbooks. Greene says the new curricula are still comprehensive, but “more in alignment of what we want in our classrooms.”
She has said the new sex-ed curricula are modeled after Broward County’s, although a Broward County Public Schools spokesperson tells Jacksonville Today that district uses an additional comprehensive sex ed curriculum, which Duval County Public Schools does not plan to use. The Duval school district has not responded to a request to clarify this discrepancy; this story will be updated if it does.
Part of a larger slate of changes
The new changes also come on the heels of changes to Duval Schools’ policies on sex and sexuality, which it said were done to comply with another new state law: Parental Rights in Education, which critics call “Don’t Say Gay.” Barr says comprehensive sex ed is one more element of supporting LGBTQ+ students that could be lost.
“We know that inclusive sex ed and Safe Space stickers, they really help our LGBTQ kids feel safer in school,” Barr says.
A year ago, the district pulled its LGBTQ+ Support Guide off its website following a lawsuit challenging a similar support guide in Leon County and backlash against the local guide from conservative parent groups.
District lawyers proposed a new version of that guide this summer — which cut out nearly every explicit protection for transgender students’ rights — but it has not been finalized. There is no formal LGBTQ+ student support policy in place currently.
In the meantime, the district has rebranded its All In for Safe Schools program as All In for All Students, removing explicit references to services for LGBTQ+ students, and adopted a parental notification policy for when students request to change their names or pronouns on informal records. The policy primarily affects transgender students who are out at school but not at home, critics say.
Despite the changes, the Florida State Board of Education lists Duval Schools as one of 11 districts that’s out of compliance with new laws. A Duval Schools spokesperson tells Jacksonville Today the district has not received any communication from the state about how it is out of compliance, and the state’s Department of Education has not responded to multiple requests for comment from Jacksonville Today.
The proposed new curricula are available for public review here, and the planned high school chapters are below. The Board says it will vote on whether to adopt them after hearing public comment at its Dec. 6 meeting.
Superintendent Greene says her goal is that high school students currently enrolled in the one-year health education/physical education course can receive the new instruction before the school year is over.
This story was updated Nov. 2 with new responses from Duval County Public Schools.