Proposed sex education change in Gwinnett County draws backlash

The district wants to stray from curriculum currently offered in more than 400 Georgia schools
Comprehensive sexual and health education textbooks and learning materials are photographed on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at Gwinnett County Schools Headquarters in Suwanee, Georgia. The materials are being considered for use in Gwinnett County's sexual education curriculum. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Comprehensive sexual and health education textbooks and learning materials are photographed on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at Gwinnett County Schools Headquarters in Suwanee, Georgia. The materials are being considered for use in Gwinnett County's sexual education curriculum. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Twenty years ago, when Joel Kanzelmeyer was a student at Gwinnett County’s Grayson High School, his teacher kept the lesson plan for sex education simple.

The health teacher focused on abstinence as the best course and extolled the virtues of saving sex for marriage.

The same pitch can be heard today in school districts across Georgia, and Kanzelmeyer believes that’s still the right message, one he plans to emphasize with his own children.

“It’s wise to wait to have sex until you’re a married adult,” he said. “I want their classes to reinforce that, not contradict it.”

Kanzelmeyer and other parents are wary of a proposal to make sex education more comprehensive in Gwinnett, Georgia’s largest school system.

A panel of district health teachers and administrators have endorsed a new program called HealthSmart, which promotes abstinence but also explores topics such as consent, gender identity and sexual orientation. Some parents have questioned those lessons, along with illustrations in the books used by HealthSmart.

They find the coursework inappropriate and alarming. The district insists that the curriculum is proper, thorough and doesn’t lose sight of abstinence as a goal.

If adopted, HealthSmart would cover a full health curriculum in Gwinnett County Public Schools. The sex education program has drawn attention, with numerous parents saying the district shouldn't make a change from Choosing the Best, the program in place for more than 20 years. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

icon to expand image

Since learning about the possible switch to HealthSmart, dozens of parents have shown up at Gwinnett school board meetings to express their disapproval. Similar debates over sex ed — and how much information should be given to students — have raged throughout metro Atlanta and the nation. Thursday, the Gwinnett school board is scheduled to vote on whether to green light the new program.

Varied approaches

In Gwinnett, HealthSmart would replace the Choosing the Best curriculum, which has been taught for more than two decades. While Choosing the Best touches on many topics, its supporters say it never deviates from its abstinence message. The sex ed program is used in 450 middle and high schools in Georgia, including seven of the 10 largest districts, according to the company that developed it.

But some Georgia advocates and Gwinnett health educators believe Choosing the Best is not inclusive and leaves out important information about reducing risks that come with sex. More than half of all high school seniors in the U.S. report being sexually active.

The district is steadfast that abstinence is the best, safest option for students, said Tasha Guadalupe, Gwinnett’s director of health and physical education. “But we’re also realistic, and we understand that not all students are going to make healthy decisions to avoid risky behaviors.”

She said HealthSmart’s focus on developing decision-making, goal-setting and refusal skills would be more effective than the district’s current approach. If parents aren’t comfortable with that, state policy allows parents to opt their children out of any sex education.

Neev Seedani, a junior at Duluth High School, hopes the school board will vote in favor of HealthSmart. He said he didn’t find the information he received in sex ed helpful. Other than abstinence, he said, the focus was on the chances of contraceptives failing.

“With condoms, for example, we talked about the times they don’t work,” he said. “If you tell someone information in a way where you focus on the negative, they’ll probably stick to the negative.”

Brenda Stoll, a retired nurse whose children graduated from the district, believes in Choosing the Best. She was part of the committee that first adopted it in Gwinnett and later served on the state committee that updated Georgia health education standards in 2021.

She described the HealthSmart program as “sexual risk reduction,” whereas Choosing the Best is “sexual risk avoidance.”

She feels HealthSmart glosses over risks that come with sex and doesn’t have enough information about the shortcomings of condoms. “Choosing the Best makes sure that the kids know — and the kids have the right to know this — that if they use a condom or contraceptive, there are failure possibilities and there are limitations,” Stoll said.

Drawing controversy

Sex education is frequently a flashpoint in Georgia and around the country.

DeKalb County parents were successful in pushing out Choosing the Best about 15 years ago in favor of the more comprehensive Family Life and Sexual Health. Fulton’s effort didn’t yield a new program, but the district supplemented Choosing the Best lessons with additional materials. And, just five years ago, Gwinnett parents came up short in their efforts to get administrators to adopt a more robust sex ed program.

There’s a national network of groups against comprehensive sex education — called Stop CSE — ready to mobilize when the topic arises. They make alarming assertions that such programs seek to sway children from their parents’ values or religious beliefs while pushing them to prematurely seek sexual pleasure.

But there are also plenty of groups advocating for more sex ed in schools, an issue they say is made even more pressing by last year’s Supreme Court decision to overturn the nation’s constitutional protections for abortion. While they, too, say parents should be talking to their children about these sensitive topics, they argue schools have a responsibility to educate students about sexuality.

“We should care about the decisions (students) are making not just while they’re in the classroom, but into adulthood,” Keri Hill, vice president of programs and training at the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power and Potential. The organization helps districts implement comprehensive sex education.

“We want to make sure that we’re giving them information to make the best decisions throughout their lives, and when we’re limiting the information, that’s not providing them the best,” Hill said.

District surveys about the proposed curriculum drew sharp negative responses.

But some in Gwinnett find Choosing the Best severely lacking.

Seedani said HealthSmart lessons that address gender identity could be especially valuable.

“There’s a lot of hatred toward LGBTQ+ individuals, and this hatred is caused by a lack of understanding,” Seedani said in an interview. He said lessons about gender and sexuality would help students “explore their own identity” while also helping all students better understand and relate to each other.

Choosing the Best program’s lack of discussion on gender and sexuality make it inherently exclusionary, said Gwinnett parent Elizabeth Wagner.

“For students on the rainbow, it’s an example that they’re not seen, not respected,” she said.

Joel Kanzelmeyer, a Gwinnett County parent, asked the school board to continue using Choosing the Best for sex education rather than the proposed HealthSmart, a comprehensive resource.

Credit: Screenshot Courtesy of Gwinnett County Public Schools

icon to expand image

Credit: Screenshot Courtesy of Gwinnett County Public Schools

Kanzelmeyer said he wouldn’t be comfortable with lessons about gender identity in a school classroom. He said he doesn’t have an issue with people expressing themselves, but doesn’t want his kids learning about it in school.

Statistical support

Two Gwinnett school board members appear unconvinced that the sex education curriculum should change.

Mary Kay Murphy pointed to the surveys about HealthSmart in which more than 90% of participants voted against its implementation. However, she feels more parents should have responded. The survey with the most participants drew 678 responses.

Vice Chair Steven Knudsen said community support and public health data showed the district shouldn’t alter what it’s doing now.

Gwinnett reported lower teen pregnancy rates than the state average from 2001 to 2021, according to state health data.

Metro Atlanta counties, along with the rest of Georgia, all reflect the trend of decreasing rates of teen pregnancy. From 1991 to 2020, the rate dropped by 75%, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Experts attribute the drop to teens being less sexually active than they once were and to more widespread use of contraceptives, like intrauterine devices.

Georgia Department of Public Health data, from 2001-2021, shows Gwinnett has had lower rates of sexually transmitted diseases among residents ages 15-19 than the state average. Compared with Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties, Gwinnett has consistently had the lowest teen STD rate, about 2%.

Hill, the GCAPP executive, said that, while Gwinnett’s numbers can be seen as a positive, she thinks that introducing a comprehensive sex ed program can help get pregnancy and STD rates lower.

Guadalupe said there’s no study that shows Choosing the Best affects these trends.

Murphy and Knudsen said they would be in favor of delaying the decision on a new health curriculum to allow for more community involvement and research on different options.

“We’ve had amazing numbers for 20 years,” Knudsen said, referring to statistics about teen health in the county. He said district staff and the board should consider the “actual real life ramifications” of their decision.

By the numbers

Here’s a snapshot of teenage sexual activity, by percentage:

57% - High school seniors nationwide who say they’ve had sexual intercourse

3% - Georgia teenagers who reported having a sexually transmitted disease

75% - the decline from 1991 to 2020 in teen pregnancies

Sources: Georgia Department of Public Health, Guttmacher Institute, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.