Sex Education and Schools

What do North Carolina schools teach for sex education?
In North Carolina, sex education is called Reproductive Health and Safety Education. A bipartisan state law passed in 2009 says that all local school systems must provide medically accurate, age appropriate sex education that includes information on abstinence, Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) prevention, contraceptive methods, and sexual assault/abuse risk reduction in grades 7-9. The law was amended in 2013 to require more information on preterm birth, and in 2015 to add information on human trafficking. These topics that must be covered are referred to as “essential standards.”

School systems make local decisions about what materials or curricula to use, but they must cover all of the topics required by law.

Who provides sex education in schools?
All instruction is provided by school personnel with a health education background. In the past, outside contractors filled this teaching role but the stricter state law on Reproductive Health and Safety Education has led more school systems to rely on teachers with health education credentials.

Is there a state curriculum?
No. School systems choose their own curriculum materials. And, regardless of what curriculum is chosen, schools have to meet the “essential standards” – the topics required by law.

The federal Office of Adolescent Health maintains a wide-ranging list of 35 curricula that are proven to reduce teen pregnancy and contribute to better health outcomes. Many of these curricula work well in schools. NC Youth Connected partner schools may choose a curriculum from this list based on local needs.

Why is sex education important?
Research repeatedly shows the positive benefits of comprehensive sex education, especially programs that are evidence based. Youth who participate in comprehensive sex education:

  • Stay abstinent longer than their peers who don’t participate in sex education.
  • Are less likely to experience a teen pregnancy or STI.

Some parents worry that comprehensive sex education encourages sex or might cause a student to become sexually active. Research shows that the opposite is true: students who participate in comprehensive sex education are less likely to have sex.

What is "comprehensive sex education"?
While there is no standard definition of comprehensive sex education, SHIFT NC and many other issue experts define it as education that includes information on both abstinence and prevention strategies, including medically accurate and effective ways to prevent pregnancy or STIs.

What is “abstinence-only” education?
Abstinence-only education is education that only covers sexual abstinence or abstinence-until-marriage. Some programs mention contraceptives, but state that they’re ineffective – for example, stating that condoms have holes and therefore do not prevent pregnancy or STIs. Many of these programs are associated with higher pregnancy or STI rates, and many have not been shown to increase abstinence.

The Office of Adolescent Health’s list of 35 effective curricula/programs includes some programs that are “abstinence only”, but that have also been deemed medically accurate and effective. These programs work well as a part of a logical progression of age-appropriate programming where an abstinence only program is used with 7th graders and a more comprehensive program is used with 8th or 9th graders.

What are my rights as a parent?
In North Carolina, you have the right to withdraw your child from any Reproductive Health and Safety Education lesson or all lessons. Most school systems will provide you with an opt-out form either at the beginning of the school year or prior to classes beginning. If you withdraw your child, he or she will receive an alternate lesson plan (often on something unrelated, like nutrition). You also have the right to review any curriculum materials used in teaching your child.

North Carolina law also encourages schools to incorporate activities to facilitate parent-child interaction around topics covered in Reproductive Health and Safety Education. These activities can provide a meaningful conversation starter between you and your child. Click here for more information about the Healthy Youth Act. 

What if I prefer abstinence-only education?
It is important to understand that supporting abstinence as a health practice and supporting abstinence-only education are two very different things. Comprehensive sex education is proven to help students stay abstinent longer than no sex education or even many abstinence-only programs.

It is also important to understand that schools provide education on a more comprehensive range of topics because state law requires them to. If you wish to withdraw your child from any portion of sex education provided in schools, state law protects your right to do so.