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Miami-Dade school board rejects sex education textbooks, leaving students with no curriculum

miami-dade-county-school-board.jpg
Miami Herald

Sexual education cannot be taught in Miami-Dade County Public Schools when the new school year starts in August, according to district staff. That’s after the school board voted 5 to 4 to reject two sex ed textbooks for grades 6-12 during a heated meeting Wednesday.

The decision means students in the district, the nation’s fourth largest, aren’t allowed to be taught about safe sex or how to protect themselves from STIs like HIV — at least until the school board approves new instructional materials, a process which is expected to take months.

Advocates say comprehensive sex ed is especially important in Miami-Dade County, which has one of the highest rates of HIV transmission in the country. The stakes for young people having unprotected sex are even higher now, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion.

Under Florida law, parents have long been able to “opt out” of instruction on health education and human sexuality. School board member Luisa Santos, who voted to approve the textbooks, says the board’s decision effectively opts out the entire district.

“As a board, what we will be doing, is instead of having an opt out, we will be opting out everyone in the following school year. Including all the people who have come here and told us that they want this — that they need this. More importantly — that they need this,” Santos said.

School board votes to reject textbooks it previously approved

The textbook at issue, “Comprehensive Health Skills,” which has a middle school and high school edition, was intended for the district’s unit of study on Human Reproduction & Disease Education. The materials span not only sexual health and pregnancy prevention but communicable and noncommunicable diseases as well as lifelong health and wellbeing.

In April, the school board voted 5 to 3 to approve the textbooks for use in grades 6-12, but parents and residents filed 278 petitions opposing the materials, arguing the curriculum isn’t age-appropriate. They also complained the district’s process wasn’t transparent enough.

At the meeting in April, board members Perla Tabares Hantman, Marta Pérez and Mari Tere Rojas voted to reject the textbooks. The other board members voted in support, except Lubby Navarro, who was absent.

On Wednesday, Hantman, Navarro, Perez and Rojas voted to reject the textbooks, as did Christi Fraga.

The decision Wednesday to reject the textbooks overturns the board’s previous vote, and the recommendation of a third party reviewer, who was appointed by the district to assess the petitions and hold a public hearing, as required by state law.

After the public meeting in June, the appointed hearing officer recommended the board deny the petitions and move forward with the adoption of the textbooks.

Supporters say sex ed is critical for young people’s health

In a contentious and hours-long public meeting on Wednesday, dozens of students, parents and teachers spoke in support of sex education, which they say is critical for the health and wellbeing of young people.

Marika Lynch is a mother of three kids in the district who spoke in support of the curriculum.

"Half of all high school kids have sex before they graduate from high school. That's not something we're going to change. Do we want them to have the best information? Yes," Lynch said. "That's what we're here for today."

Lynch says the question isn't whether kids will learn about sex — it's where they'll get their information: from a teacher or their phones.

Fifty percent of people will contract at least one STI before the age of 25," said Maxx Fenning, the founder of PRISM, an LGBTQ nonprofit. "Comprehensive sex education gives young people the tools they need to protect themselves if and when they decide to be sexually active."

Kat Duesterhaus, an organizer with abortion rights group Bans Off Our Bodies, testified that equipping young people with knowledge about consent, bodily autonomy and pregnancy prevention can be lifesaving. Duesterhaus says they were sexually assaulted at age 14 — an experience that they said pushed them to consider suicide.

“If I would have had been forced to give birth, if I had been impregnated during that sexual assault, it would have killed me,” Duesterhaus said. “So lives are literally on the line, beyond STDs and STIs. Lives are on the line.”

Alejandro Serrano heads the conservative group County Citizens Defending Freedom, which circulated excerpts in the books related to contraception and abortion.

Serrano argues the curriculum is in violation of state law. House Bill 1557, which went into effect July 1, bans classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation if it’s not age-appropriate.

"We are not against sexual education. We are not against human reproduction and disease education books. We are for statutory compliance," Serrano said. “An 11-year-old being told where to obtain and how easy it is to obtain Plan B pills, in our assessment, is not appropriate."

The discussion was tense and emotionally-charged at times. Police escorted four people out of the auditorium after some opposed to the curriculum began yelling at board members and disrupting the meeting.

Textbook approval could take four to eight months

The vote to reject the textbooks comes after a months-long effort to review the materials and publicly vet them — in line with a state law passed in 2021. Previously, districts didn’t need school board approval to adopt instructional materials on reproductive health. But under House Bill 545, which also went into effect July 1, those materials must be “annually approved by a district school board in an open, noticed public meeting.”

If the textbooks aren’t approved, that subject can’t be taught, Chief Academic Officer Lourdes Diaz told the board on Wednesday. In Miami-Dade, sex ed is taught in science or PE classes.

“The students would continue to be enrolled in the course. This particular unit of study would not be included in that course, until the materials are adopted,” Diaz said.

In order to adopt new materials, the district will have to restart the entire review process, which Diaz says could take between four to eight months.

Districts are required by state law to provide comprehensive and age-appropriate health education, which includes instruction on family life, healthy relationships, dating violence and abuse, the benefits of sexual abstinence and the consequences of teen pregnancy.

Diaz told the board that if new instructional materials are not adopted, the district will have to notify the Florida Department of Education it’s not in compliance with that requirement.

Because of the lengthy review process required under the new state law, Diaz says the district wasn’t able to adopt materials for the 2021-2022 school year either, and notified the DOE it didn’t meet that requirement, but has yet gotten a response. According to the district, it’s not clear what if any formal repercussions will result from the noncompliance.

Advocates who spoke in support of sex ed say the repercussions on students will be grave.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter