Fort Worth ISD is expected to roll out a new sex education curriculum for middle school students.

However, some members of a school board-appointed advisory committee raised concerns over the curriculum’s language and content as well as what they see as the district’s lackluster effort to communicate the opt-in process to parents.

The school board is expected to consider adopting the curriculum at its Jan. 24 meeting, according to district officials. As trustees weigh their decision, they will be taking into account the recommendation of the School Health Advisory Council, a school board-appointed, 26-member committee that gives guidance on health-related policy. 

If you go…

What: The next regular meeting of the Fort Worth ISD school board

When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 13

Where: Fort Worth ISD Teaching and Learning Center, 1050 Bridgewood Drive, Fort Worth

Also, you can watch the meeting live on YouTube.

In November, the School Health Advisory Council recommended the adoption of a new curriculum from California-based HealthSmart, which has supplied materials to the district since 2014. The council made the recommendation in a secret ballot after a member requested it for privacy reasons. State law mandates school health advisory council meetings be open to the public and for the posting of minutes and agendas, but does not require them to follow the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Chris Moore, a district adolescent health coordinator, told members a curriculum update was needed after the State Board of Education introduced new curriculum standards in 2021. These standards across all subjects are known as Texas Essential Knowledge and Sills, or TEKS.

Texas does not require school districts to teach sex education. Districts that choose to do so are required to have parents opt their students in and must focus on abstinence, a fact that was emphasized to parents appointed to Fort Worth ISD’s Student Health Advisory Council. 

“Everything is framed through the lens of abstinence,” Moore told the health council.

The new TEKS include:

  • Basic information on anatomy, puberty and reproduction.
  • Information about contraception, prevention and treatment of sexually tranmitted infections.
  • Abstinence.
  • Healthy relationships, including how to prevent sexual abuse, sex trafficking and respecting boundaries.

The standards do not include lessons on consent nor references to LGBTQ students. That was a point of contention for Democrat State Board of Education members, who were unsuccessful in their attempts to incorporate definitions of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Content concerns

Fort Worth ISD parent Rustan Asfar was appointed to the Student Health Advisory Council in October. He was concerned about the language of the instructional materials. The curriculum uses gender neutral language. Instead of stating male or female, the materials say “body with a penis” or “body with a vagina.”

The materials being gender neutral was not an issue for Asfar. The phrasing was, he said.

“You could just say vagina,” Asfar said.

For Fort Worth ISD, Moore said anatomical language is a focus and the preference is for scientific terms.

Asfar also brought up how the curriculum has photos of adult male and female genitals. He said he did not want his 10-year-old student to see those photos. However, he understood if a neighbor wanted his child to learn and see that. 

Asfar wants Fort Worth ISD to be transparent about the content students may see in sex education and communicate it better than what it has done, he said. 

Consent letters for high school and middle school detail the lesson titles and concepts covered. 

Another new member, Kathryn Pompa, was concerned about the presentation of some topics, such as the vaccine for human papillomavirus, being too one-sided and not providing a fuller picture. For example, Pompa said, the curriculum does not detail the potential side effects of the HPV vaccine

Teachers have limited time to go over all pieces of sex education, Moore said. 

“We are providing them with the functional health part,” he said, adding students and their parents can receive more medical-focused information from their family doctor.

Fort Worth ISD parent Laurie George is another new member of the council. She has been part of other book and curriculum reviews in the past. She told members that some pieces of the curriculum, including those that may be more controversial, likely will not be taught to students because HealthSmart is designed to be used in districts across the country, not exclusively in Texas.

Roina Baquera, director of Fort Worth ISD’s Health and Physical Education Department, pointed out that the district does not plan to purchase physical books for sex education. All materials will be digital. That provides an extra layer of security and means students can access only instruction allowed under the state standards, she said.

Several members of the School Health Advisory Council agreed the curriculum is a starting point for students and their parents. The conversation about sex and their family’s values has to continue outside of the classroom, several said.

Communication issues

The Rev. Vernon Elisher’s children are students at Polytechnic High School and Morningside Middle School. He said he never received opt-in forms for sex education. 

“That concerns me because I never received these papers — and I volunteer at these schools,” Elisher said.

Fort Worth ISD officials presented data showing the opt in and opt out rate for sex education among high school and middle school students. Elisher noticed a trend: Schools with higher no response rates were in predominantly communities of color.

That pattern, he said, shows a breakdown in communication between those campuses and schools, like Arlington Heights High School.

“Honestly, the schools I represent and sit at don’t get this information,” Elisher said. “All of our schools need to be on a level-playing field in getting this information out.”

Teachers are responsible for sending the opt-in letters to parents, Moore said. The district recommends teachers send it at least twice and to encourage parents to fill it out through texts, emails and phone calls.

Administrators are examining teachers with low response rates and looking for solutions, Moore said.

“Some of that is stuff we need to work on,” Moore said. 

Some School Health Advisory Council members, though, expressed concern that the consent letters did not provide enough detail about sex education for parents to decide to opt their child in or out.

Moore told members that parents can review the curriculum, an option listed on the consent letter, before deciding whether their child should take the class.

Baquera, the district’s health and physical education director, told parents the consent form likely will stay as is because it meets state law.

“We are going to follow the code because that’s what we’re accountable to. We’re accountable to the Texas Education Code, and Texas tells us what to do,” she said.

Who’s on the School Health Advisory Council?

Student health advisory councils are required under state law. School boards must appoint at least five members to the council as a way to ensure the values of each district community are reflected in health education. 

A majority of members must be parents of students enrolled in a school district who are not district employees. 

Here’s who’s on Fort Worth ISD’s School Health Advisory Council:

  • Co-chair Roina Baquera, director of Fort Worth ISD’s Health and Physical Education Department
  • Co-chair Hailey Sinclaire, parent
  • Rustan Asfar
  • Oscar Brown
  • Noah Drew
  • Rev. Vernon Elisher
  • Rachel Eriseman
  • Jessica Espinoza
  • Megan Fahey
  • Johnna Flenoid
  • Laurie George
  • Robin Hall
  • Casey Harreison
  • Amanda Heffley
  • Charlotte Hogg
  • Adam King
  • Bry Mabry
  • Lynn McGuff
  • Chris Moore
  • Dillon Moore
  • Itzia Oscos
  • Kathryn Pompa
  • Sandra Salinas
  • Demeka Tanksley
  • Cherrelle Tillis
  • Wendy Walling
  • Andrea Wickstron
  • Lonetta Wilson

Disclosure: Laurie George is a member of the Fort Worth Report’s Reader Advisory Council. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Jacob SanchezEnterprise Reporter

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University....