Old-school sex ed is out, health literacy is in for Iowa schools

Today's Iowa public classrooms go beyond anatomy, reproduction

Jamie Sebring shows students a pack of contraceptive pills during a course on human growth and physiognomy at Taft Middl
Jamie Sebring shows students a pack of contraceptive pills during a course on human growth and physiognomy at Taft Middle School in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. Jamie Sebring incorporates a unit that helps teens learn about topics from consent to abstinence and contraceptives. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Jamie Sebring stood in front of her eighth-grade wellness class Tuesday and summarized the concepts she and the 13- and 14-year-olds had discussed during the quarter.

“We’ve covered ovulation, menstruation, fertilization,” the Taft Middle School teacher recounted, as a student in the hallway cracked open her classroom door.

“Come on in, you’re in the right spot,” Sebring told the boy as he took his seat. “Menstruation, conception — and I think I’m out of -tion words for you.”

The Cedar Rapids middle school — as with all public schools in Iowa — is required by the state to provide all students age-appropriate, research-based and medically accurate health education.

To facilitate lessons, teachers sometimes work with outside agencies. Planned Parenthood of the Heartland supplemented lessons about reproductive health in dozens of Iowa schools in fiscal year 2018, according to the Iowa Department of Human Services.

But the Republican-controlled Statehouse — in a budget provision passed in the final days of the 2019 session — blocked Planned Parenthood from the federal dollars that support that work.

A Polk County District Court Judge granted an injunction on the law in late May, allowing the not-for-profit health organization, for now, to continue to provide sexual health education in schools.


A court eventually will settle the dispute with the state as to who will be authorized to teach Iowa students sex education. Until then, the long-term role of Planned Parenthood in these programs remains unclear.

Republican lawmakers say the move is part of their effort to undermine Planned Parenthood — which ultimately would undermine access to abortion services in Iowa.

“We have addressed Planned Parenthood in the last couple years and there is just one little, small piece that they have left, which is the sex education,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, in a previous interview with The Gazette. “There are other vendors to do that and we wanted to keep that with other vendors.”

Erin Davison-Rippey, state executive director for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, emphasized the funds from these federal grants are not used to provide abortions. She said it’s unfortunate the larger abortion access debate is “being used to turn this funding into politically motivated narrative.”

In the Cedar Rapids Community School District, much of students’ interaction with “sex education” is in middle school, when a typical student takes three quarters — about 30 weeks — of health and wellness courses.

“When I think of sex ed, I think of a really old-school, pre-internet term,” district Health and Wellness Supervisor Stephanie Neff said. “With technology and easy access to all kinds of things at kids’ fingertips, really the emphasis is more on the navigation of available resources” online.

For younger students, Neff said, elementary nurses also give separate presentations to boys and girls about basic human development.


Taft Middle School’s Sebring said she has worked with Planned Parenthood staff to facilitate lessons on sexual health in the past. She stopped working with them out of a desire to improve her own expertise teaching human growth and development.


Planned Parenthood, she said, can be a boon for health teachers who don’t have a professional focus on those topics.

“It’s medically accurate, the same stuff I do in my classroom,” Sebring said. “What Planned Parenthood does, I do.”

Teachers may lack breadth of information or “may not have the whole picture,” said Beth Mensing, education manager at Planned Parenthood.

The organization’s curricula is comprehensive, she said, and goes beyond anatomy and reproduction.

“Some of relationships we’ve established with schools is to supplement or reinforce what’s already been taught,” Mensing said.

The curriculum includes programs such as “Draw the Line/Respect the Line,” which teaches students how to identify their boundaries and communicate those to others. Mensing said this can include how to respond to pressure to be more physically intimate in a relationship or to drink alcohol.

Experts have found using evidence-based curriculum correlates with lower rates of sexually transmitted diseases, lower rates of unwanted pregnancies and other decreased risk factors associated with unsafe sex.

When organizations are contracted to teach sex education, including Planned Parenthood, in the classroom, they must prove consistency to the curriculum, documenting every deviation — every fire alarm, every snow day and every change in the discussion that may affect these results.


Planned Parenthood also provides sex education outside of schools, including the Area Substance Abuse Council youth residential treatment program in Cedar Rapids.

Individuals with substance-use disorders engage in high-risk sexual behavior and partnerships with Planned Parenthood raises awareness on resources available to them, ASAC Communications Coordinator Mickey Miller said in an email.

“When they leave treatment, they know where to go for help if they need it,” Miller wrote.

Vendors use the same curricula, so if Planned Parenthood is blocked from Iowa classrooms and youth organizations, lessons still likely will remain the same, said Natoshia Askelson, principle investigator at the University of Iowa Public Policy Center. The center evaluates sex education programs in Iowa.

“Because there’s no evidence on this and because they don’t deviate from the program, it’s not clear if the outcomes would be different (depending on) the vendor,” Askelson said.

It’s still unclear whether the state law that blocks Planned Parenthood also blocks the University of Iowa — an abortion provider — from funding to evaluate the state’s sex education programs, Askelson said.


On one morning at Taft, Sebring’s students discussed different forms of contraception — including hormonal intrauterine devices, depo shots and emergency contraceptive pills — before breaking into groups to complete an exercise that asked them to chronologically order the steps of putting a condom on a penis.

“Someday, someday, you are going to make the choice whether or not to be sexually active,” she told students. “This is your choice because it’s your body. We know what is the safest and healthiest method of preventing pregnancy —”

Some students, in unison, told her it’s abstinence.


“— We know that. Beyond that, when you walk out of here today, I want you to know what we need to protect ourselves from other people’s body fluids.”

Sebring, who has taught health education for 15 years, said she recognizes parents and guardians are the primary educator for their kids. Some have objected to class content — mention of abortion raised alarms for parents a dozen years ago, she said, while she has heard feedback about lessons on gender identity and gender expression recently.

But most, when they understand lessons are state-mandated, are understanding, she said.

Neff, the district administrator, said sex education today emphasizes health literacy for students — knowing how to find and identify accurate and reliable information about their bodies.

Most of that content is readily available to anyone online.

“It’s much broader that what we all think — depending on how old you are — of sex education,” Neff said. “Human sexuality includes understanding healthy relationships, emotional intelligence, all of the stuff that contributes to interacting with other people on an intimate level. Not just the mechanics of sex.”

Whether in a class in Cedar Rapids, Marshalltown, Mason City or Council Bluffs, evaluators like the UI’s Askelson find students in these classes take away more than just an understanding of the subject matter.

“They seem to gain a lot more than just knowledge than how bodies work and better decision-making,” Askelson said. “But they also gain an adult in their life to provide them guidance when they don’t have anyone else.”

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