By Aliyya Swaby, Texas Tribune
By the age of 16, Atticus Sandlin has become a sex education expert.
As a student at Hebron High School in Lewisville Independent School District, in the suburbs of Dallas, he built what he calls a “sex ed mini career,” educating himself through internet research, conferences and advocacy groups — then turning around and educating his peers.
Last school year, he says, students would find him in the halls to ask questions like, “What is a hymen?” or “Does this count as sex?” He handed out condoms, pamphlets and dental dams to anyone who asked, and highlighted the importance of respecting other people’s boundaries. He even taught sexual education classes specifically for LGBTQ students through Youth First, a program in North Texas for queer teens.
Texas does not require public schools to teach LGBTQ issues in sex education, an omission that frustrates Sandlin, who is bisexual and a transgender boy. “There are some queer people who don’t do their own research, and they don’t get information from school or any resources,” said Sandlin, now a high school junior at public iSchool Virtual Academy of Texas. “It’s important that they get that information even when they don’t have access to it or it’s not safe for them to get access anywhere else.”
This week, the Texas State Board of Education, which determines what millions of public school students learn, is expected to approve new standards outlining how schools should teach health and sexual education — the first revisions to that statewide policy since 1997. At an initial public hearing this June, many students, teachers and advocates asked the board to require that students learn about sexual orientation and gender identity, especially since LGBTQ students are more likely to be discriminated against and bullied.
One study conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law estimates that as many as 158,500 LGBT youth live in Texas, about 2% of the state’s youth population.
But the final proposal, set for debate and a preliminary vote this week with final approval expected in November, still excludes any direct mention of LGBTQ issues.
Over the last several years, Texas Republican leaders have targeted LGBTQ rights and protections. In 2017, they unsuccessfully pushed a policy preventing transgender people from using public bathrooms that match their gender identity, and last year they encouraged an investigation into whether a mother supporting her child’s gender transition was committing “child abuse.”
At its June hearing on the new policy, the 15-member elected education board — 10 Republicans and 5 Democrats — split down partisan lines, with Democrats pushing for explicit inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity and Republicans largely opposed.
“There likely will not be consensus on this,” said Keven Ellis, a Lufkin Republican, who chairs the board, at the June meeting. He told The Texas Tribune in an e-mail that he supported teaching about “different types of bullying, including bullying for sexual reasons.”
All Texas public schools must offer health education for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, but health education is optional in high school. The board is considering requiring all seventh and eighth grade health teachers to include lessons about contraceptive methods for the first time, now only a requirement in high school health.