Arizona doesn’t mandate sex education, and data provided by Tucson-area public school districts show thousands of students don’t take it.

State law requires students to “opt in” to take sex ed. At the five Tucson-area districts that track how many do so, fewer than 25 percent of students are enrolled in sex education this school year, public records provided to the Arizona Daily Star show.

Three districts — Tucson Unified, Sunnyside and Catalina Foothills — don’t track how many students are enrolled in sex education.

The highest concentration of local students taking sex ed is in the Vail Unified School District, with 46 percent enrolled. The lowest is in the Marana Unified School District, which has 12,000 students and offers no sex education at all.

The Tucson Unified School District, the area’s largest with nearly 50,000 students, offers a two-day state-approved sex-education class to students in fourth and fifth grades and a weeklong class to high school students. But it does not tally how many students participate.

Proponents of comprehensive sex education say teaching it in school helps prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.

Many kids don’t get sex ed because of Arizona’s “opt-in” requirement, which says parents must take the extra step of providing consent for their children to take the course — a provision considered more restrictive than “opt-out,” which assumes kids can take the class unless their parents sign something saying they can’t.

Many parents don’t bother to either permit or deny their kids’ access to sex ed, so those students cannot take the curriculum. Other parents don’t opt in because they object to the school teaching their children about sex.

And some parents don’t opt in but because the state-approved “Family Life” sex-education class stresses abstinence only, which they say doesn’t give their kids the information they need.

Another opt-out option

Family Life Education, the sex-ed curriculum approved by the Arizona State Board of Education, stresses abstinence and gives parents the additional option to excuse their kids from instruction on HIV and AIDS.

Contraception is mentioned, but Family Life is an abstinence-based program, so there’s no in-depth discussion of the different types, where to get them or how they’re used correctly.

Michele Ream is keeping her daughter out of a sixth-grade sex-education class at Roskruge Middle School, but not because she doesn’t like the idea of her daughter learning about sex at school. Rather, Ream chose not to opt in when the school sent home paperwork indicating that the program was to focus on abstinence only.

“I don’t find abstinence to be effective,” she said. “If there’s no other discussion, that’s not realistic for this age group.”

As a social worker, Ream says she’s seen firsthand that abstinence-based education doesn’t always work.

Ream said she talks about sex with her daughter and asked her how she felt about sitting out of the class. After looking at the list of topics the curriculum would cover, Ream’s daughter agreed that she did not want to participate.

“If kids aren’t exposed to what their options are, they won’t know what choices to make,” Ream said.

Not required by state

The Marana Unified School District does not have a sex-education curriculum because it’s not required to by the state, spokeswoman Tamara Crawley said.

The district used to offer health as an elective at Marana High, but Crawley said the course was dropped due to minimal student interest.

The Sunnyside Unified School District offers sex education within its health curriculum at all 21 district schools, but the district doesn’t track how many of its nearly 18,000 students are taking it.

The district has a better idea how many students are in the Teenage Parent Program it offers at Sunnyside High School. The program averages 148 student participants per year. Once enrolled, students take courses in pregnancy and parenting, and there’s an on-site nursery, too.

Arizona is sixth in the nation for teenage pregnancies, a 2013 study by the Guttmacher Institute found.

Sexually transmitted diseases also run high for young people in the state, with youths ages 15 to 24 accounting for more than half of all of the state’s gonorrhea and chlamydia cases, a 2006 study by the Arizona Department of Health Services showed.

Young people are still getting infected with HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. In 2010, the estimated number of new HIV infections in the U.S. was highest among individuals ages 25 to 34, followed by people ages 13 to 24.

In Arizona, there were nearly 1,000 new cases of HIV reported in people ages 13 to 29 between 2007 and 2011, state records show.

2 other states are opt-in

Only two other states, Utah and Nevada, have the opt-in requirement for sex education. But unlike Arizona, both of those states mandate sex education, an April 2014 study by the Guttmacher Institute found.

Supporters of “opt in” say it empowers parents by ensuring the government does not intrude on their child rearing.

Paul Rondeau, executive director of the Virginia-based American Life League, said the organization — the largest grass-roots Catholic pro-life education program in the country — doesn’t support any kind of sex education in schools.

“It’s better for kids to get education from parents than from government agencies co-opted by progressive agendas,” Rondeau said. “Sex education is a moral and health decision that should be left to parents and their children.”

Legislative attempts

Since the implementation of the opt-in policy four years ago, several Arizona legislators have proposed bills to amend it.

Early in the 2014 Arizona legislative session, Democratic Sen. Ed Ableser of Tempe and Democratic Rep. Victoria Steele of Tucson both submitted bills that would change the policy from opt-in to opt-out.

With the opt-in policy, permission slips are sent home with students for their parents to sign. If the form gets lost or the parent or student forgets about it, that student cannot take the course.

“The opt-in policy makes parents go above and beyond to make an effort to enroll their children,” Ableser said. “These aren’t the kids that we worry about. We worry about the parents that are a little absent in their children’s lives.”

Both bills were assigned to the Senate Education Committee for hearings in early February. However, neither bill was heard.

Ableser intends to try again during next year’s legislative session.

“We need to make sure that students are getting life skills and a correct understanding of sex,” he said.

Shifting the curriculum away from abstinence and toward a medically accurate, comprehensive education about sex is necessary, Steele said.

“Kids still have sex, no matter how good of a parent you are,” Steele said. “Just saying no rarely will override teenage hormones.”

Steele said that 84 percent of parents agree that providing students with information about how to obtain and use contraception will make it more likely that they’ll practice safe sex, referring to a 2004 Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

“There’s no reason why we aren’t doing this,” she said. “We need to give our kids the tools to protect themselves, which is fact-based information about sex.”

Bills such as Ableser’s are introduced every legislative session and are unlikely to be heard, even with modest attempts to change only the opt-in aspect, said Jodi Liggett, Planned Parenthood of Arizona’s director of policy.

“This is somewhat of a perception problem,” Liggett said. “Many parents are under the misapprehension that their kids are getting sex education in school.”

In 2010, Kyrsten Sinema, a Democratic state legislator from Phoenix at the time, introduced a bill that would have required all school districts in Arizona to provide medically accurate and age-appropriate comprehensive sex education, including information about contraception, abstinence, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The bill failed.

Instead of waiting for the law to change, Planned Parenthood is urging parents to go directly to their school boards and petition the district if their child’s school doesn’t offer sex education, as in many Tucson-area schools.

“Polling consistently shows that parents want their kids to have access to comprehensive sex education,” Liggett said. “And exerting local control over schools and through school boards is the shortest path to change right now.”

In April 2013, due to parental requests, the Tempe Union High School District added sex education to its curriculum. As of yet, no curriculum has been adopted, but the district has consulted with Planned Parenthood to develop a medically accurate curriculum that follows the Family Life Education plan.

That’s a step forward, Liggett said, but real change won’t come as long as the state continues to allow sex ed that focuses on abstinence only.

Caitlin Schmidt is a University of Arizona journalism student and an apprentice at the Star. Email her at starapprentice@azstarnet.com