While rates of sexually transmitted infections are on the rise, Denver Public Schools lacks a requirement to offer comprehensive health curriculum, including sex education.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and estimated one in five Americans may have a sexually transmitted infection, with people ages 15 to 24 years old making up nearly half of the infections.
The state remains one of only 12 in the nation to not require sex ed in schools, instead deferring what’s taught in classrooms to local districts and administrators. Data regarding which schools in DPS have opted-out of teaching sex ed curricula is hard to come by, though.
A district spokesperson, in response to multiple attempts at a Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) request, responded, “The district is not in possession of a list of schools.” Regarding additional documents that might help shed more light on what schools within the district teach for sex education, the spokesperson quoted a rate of $450 to search 1000+ documents in DPS’s possession, citing, “The staff in this area are brand new to the district and have no historical knowledge of what documents may or may not exist.”
The CORA request was submitted in response to prior reporting in The Colorado Sun where DPS staff acknowledged “inconsistencies and inequities in if and how sex education is being provided.”
Two attempts to contact the State Board of Education initially led to denials of tracking anything related to sex ed curriculums, including within DPS.
In a third inquiry to the board, Colorado Department of Education Communications Director Jeremy Meyer responded that Colorado schools are not mandated to teach sex ed, but in districts that choose to implement the curriculum, charter schools are legally eligible to apply to the board of education for a waiver.
According to Meyer, of the 58 charter schools in DPS, none are currently provided with a waiver for Colorado’s Comprehensive Human Sexuality Education statute. This is likely due to DPS not requiring sex ed curricula to date.
Districts at large are not eligible for such waivers, but CDE also does not track nor enforce school participation, citing a lack of statutory requirement. The extent to which there are “inconsistencies and inequities” in sex ed within DPS is unclear.
Multiple calls were made to school staff, counselors, and teachers—most of them asking to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation at work—who spoke to The Denver North Star about the current curriculum.
Because DPS currently designates sex education as an elective, schools within the district appear to offer a range of instruction. One school employee at Prep Academy said no sex ed teacher or standardized curriculum was offered.
A receptionist confirmed this stating, “We’re a different type of school. You should ask others. There may be a gym teacher that teaches some. Or a science teacher.”
No follow-up calls to staff at Prep Academy were returned. A second alternative school, however, shared a very different perspective. Sex education specialist and science teacher Carlee Taga of AUL Denver (formerly the Academy of Urban Learning) said her school provides a six-week course that combines sex ed with core principles in biology.
“While learning about birth control, students also learn about osmosis and diffusion,” Taga said. “It’s fundamental to how it works.”
Another way Taga incorporates sex education is through the creation of peer education groups.
“I take a selected group of students who have shown leadership and maturity during the sex ed course and I give them extra training to talk about these topics more in depth,” she said. “Then they become educators on campus.”
Taga said this allows students to ask more questions in a safe space with a fellow student.
“It’s sometimes easier for them to talk to a peer than an adult,” she said.
Taga has also spent time at two other traditional schools in DPS, and says that while those two schools had good teachers, it’s the strong administrative support at AUL that makes her success truly possible.
“Right now, it comes down to if the specific school administration is supportive of inclusive, science-based sex ed,” she said. “If so, you’re fine. But if not, they (DPS) don’t make it a graduation requirement.”
Acknowledging the lack of required curriculum, several spokespersons at DPS noted changes have been recommended for the 2023-24 school year, with a proposal to require all schools in DPS to offer comprehensive health education, which would include sex education.
The spokespersons said the option to opt out individual students will always be up to a parent or guardian, per Colorado law. Per CDE, charter schools would also remain eligible to apply for a waiver to the board of education should DPS require sex education.