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What does age-appropriate, comprehensive sex ed actually look like?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Advocates for comprehensive sex education say it's more important than ever now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned. But like so many things related to education, sex ed is highly politicized. Only three states require schools to teach age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education. In other states, it's up to the schools to decide. Last spring, we sent reporters into an elementary school and a high school to get a sense of how those lessons are taught. Lee Gaines from member station WFYI starts us off in Indianapolis.

HAILEIGH HUGGINS: As I talk about these body systems, I'm going to use, like, the scientific words for these body parts. And I am going to be talking about the private parts, OK?

LEE GAINES, BYLINE: Haileigh Huggins is leading a sex ed class for fifth graders at Louis B. Russell Jr. Elementary School. Some students fidget. Some giggle. And a lot of them have questions - like, can boys have babies?

HUGGINS: No, they cannot get pregnant. Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: But even if they're, like - if they like boys?

HUGGINS: So if it's, like, two people of the same gender in a relationship...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Yeah.

HUGGINS: ...Then they still would not be able to have a pregnancy because they both would have sperm cells, right? There wouldn't be an egg cell.

GAINES: When you think of sex ed, you often think about lessons on puberty and reproduction. But comprehensive sex ed goes beyond that. It teaches students about healthy relationships, how to communicate consent, how to respect yourself and other people and how to identify dangerous situations.

NORA GELPERIN: Even though it may seem like sex education is controversial, it absolutely is not. And it's always in the best interest of young people.

GAINES: Nora Gelperin has designed sex ed curricula with the organization Advocates for Youth. She says these comprehensive sex ed lessons should start as early as kindergarten. And there are lots of ways to make them fun and age-appropriate. She loves using hula hoops to teach bodily autonomy.

GELPERIN: So if you give each student a hula hoop and then you use the hula hoop as an analogy for boundaries and talk about if someone is trying to come inside your hula hoop, that they should ask for your permission to tickle you, to hug you, to give you a kiss, all of those kinds of things. If someone is touching you inside your boundary in a way that makes you uncomfortable, it's OK to say no and talk to a trusted adult.

GAINES: Another good lesson for younger kids is how to identify those trusted adults and what healthy relationships with friends and family look like. When students reach fifth and sixth grade, Gelperin says the conversation should shift to puberty because that's something those students are starting to see and experience. It's also a good time to start talking about gender expression and stereotypes.

GELPERIN: And as it relates to gender - that may be that they're acting similar to other kids their gender, or they may be interested in things - hobbies, activities, sports - that aren't typically something associated with their gender, and all of it is fine and normal.

GAINES: Gelperin says normalizing the experiences of young people is a crucial component of comprehensive sex ed. And simple lessons, like the hula-hoop activity, set the foundation for more advanced conversations in middle and high school.

Eva Goldfarb researches sex ed at Montclair State University. She co-authored a study that found, if done well and introduced in early grades, comprehensive sex ed has a lot of benefits.

EVA GOLDFARB: Increase prevention of child sex abuse, increase prevention of dating and interpersonal violence, decrease homophobic bullying and harassment, promote healthy relationships, build life skills, such as empathy, respect for others.

GAINES: But few states require schools to teach comprehensive sex ed. That's according to SIECUS, a group that advocates for progressive sex education policies. Indiana is among the majority of states that don't require comprehensive sex ed. School leaders here can choose to invite educators, like Haileigh Huggins, into classrooms.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: A boy gets pregnant.

HUGGINS: Well, they wouldn't...

GAINES: Still, Huggins doesn't get a lot of time with students - just one hour with each class. In the classroom I visited, kids were still asking her questions as she made her way out the door.

HUGGINS: I can't take the rest of your questions only because I have to, like, book it down the hall the sixth grade. So if you have other questions, I do encourage you - remember, talk to those trusted adults.

GAINES: For NPR News, I'm Lee Gaines at Louis B. Russell Jr. Elementary School in Indianapolis.

ELIZABETH MILLER, BYLINE: And I'm Elizabeth Miller at Mountainside High School in Beaverton, Ore., outside Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL BELL TONE)

MILLER: Unlike Indiana, Oregon requires comprehensive sexual education from kindergarten through 12th grade. By the time students get to Jenn Hicks' high school health class, they've had years of conversation around consent and sexuality.

JENN HICKS: So that when they come to me as high schoolers, it's like, oh, yeah; we know this.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Yeah. I mean, I don't know...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: It was, like, mold...

MILLER: This classroom feels pretty different from the one in Indiana. These high school students are on their cell phones and taking notes on their laptops. And the conversations they're having are also different.

HICKS: Honestly, sexual violence can happen to anyone, but it doesn't happen equally to everyone.

MILLER: Back in elementary school, lessons on healthy relationships focused on family and friends. By high school, Nora Gelperin says the focus should shift to romantic partners.

GELPERIN: What makes a relationship healthy? How do you know if a relationship is not healthy? - starting to explore intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment in particular, to really help students know that they deserve to be in a healthy relationship and that there are a lot of resources and strategies if that's not what they're experiencing.

MILLER: Gelperin says sex ed in high school should also include lessons on contraception and how to use a condom - ways to reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. She says, without that knowledge, students don't have all the tools they need.

GELPERIN: I always think about a student that I once worked with who said, you know, how can you adults expect us teenagers to make healthy decisions if you're too scared to teach us what we need to know?

MILLER: Less than half of states require instruction on contraception. And then there are the lessons that don't have anything to do with sex, like how to find credible sources of information. Think about all the rumors about sex that can circulate in a high school. Those rumors are also all over the internet. As a kid looking for information, it can be hard to know what to believe.

LISA LIEBERMAN: We're allowing children to learn from what's out there, and they are.

MILLER: Lisa Lieberman co-authored that sex ed study for Montclair State. She studies adolescent and preteen health.

LIEBERMAN: They are accessing pornography. They are accessing the internet. They are learning in ways that are not the messages that most parents and schools want children to have.

MILLER: Lieberman says it's important to teach students how to find accurate information so they don't believe all the misinformation. Talking about healthy relationships and having open conversations around contraception and consent - it's all meant to give students a foundation - because, like it or not, parents, your kid is going to encounter sex. And as we heard earlier, teaching them about sex and relationships can help keep them safe from abuse.

HICKS: We are going to talk about gender and sexuality.

MILLER: Mountainside High School teacher Jenn Hicks says it all comes down to building a safer, more inclusive school community.

HICKS: It's recognizing everybody that's in the room and giving them the knowledge and skills to make the best possible decisions for themselves and to lead a happy, fulfilled life.

MILLER: She hopes that's something parents and policymakers can get behind.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Miller in Beaverton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.