General Articles

Arizona: Tale of Two Cities in a Sex-Ed Desert

By Emer Valdez, SIECUS Intern
Updated June 12, 2014

Two Arizona communities recently made the news as sex education advocates have begun to shake-up the established order – an order which for too long has failed to provide young people with even basic information about their sexual health. The stakes are high in Tucson and Tempe as advocates and opponents of comprehensive sexuality education struggle for dominance over the future of their schools’ curricula.

Tucson, Arizona’s second largest city, has 286 public schools dispersed across 10 unique school districts. In the five districts that actually track student enrollment in sex ed classes, fewer than 25% of all students receive sexuality education.[1] Arizona state education law is widely thought to be the main reason that so few Tucson students receive this instruction in school. To attend class lessons on sexual topics beyond basic HIV and other STDs, students must present proof of parental consent for them to participate. For topics such as contraception, Arizona’s law relies on the restrictive “opt-in” or active parental consent feature found in states such as neighboring Utah and Nevada and, in the Deep South, Mississippi.[2]

Additional factors help explain the problem in Tucson. State law does not require school districts to provide instruction on HIV or other sexual health topics. For those students who attend HIV class lessons when those are provided, any instruction must “promote abstinence” and is forbidden if it

“1. Promotes a homosexual life-style. 2. Portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style. 3. Suggests that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.”[3]

In addition to the five Tucson local school districts that track the number of students enrolled in sexuality education, three districts don’t document attendance in these classes, and at least one district (Marana Unified School District) offers nothing to its 12,000 students.[4]

State Representatives Victoria Steele and Ed Ableser, both Democrats, proposed a bill earlier in 2014 to change Arizona’s opt-in provisions for sex ed so that, when instruction is provided in Tucson and elsewhere, students could attend automatically unless a parent submitted a written request to deny instruction.[5]

Ableser’s motivation for co-sponsoring the bill was his concern about “the parents that are a little absent in their children’s lives.”[6] But a reader of the Arizona Daily Star who identified as Michael Kitrell argued that low student enrollments were not a result of opt-in policies or parental inattentiveness to sex education:

“Please provide evidence for the claim that the parents are opting out and doing so because of inattentiveness. Not a couple of anecdotes, but real evidence. You argue that its [sic] burdensome for parents who want the education for their children to ‘opt in’ but isn't this just picking ‘opt in’ parents over ‘opt out’? Shouldn't parents be able to assume that anything controversial taught to their children will require their explicit consent first? Opt in is the correct policy to respect parental choices (as the responsible adults most of them are) and their wishes for their children.”[7]

In contrast to Tucson, the more conservative Tempe Union High School District, near Phoenix, is actively engaged in a heated debate over efforts to implement more comprehensive sexuality education. Planned Parenthood of Arizona had been invited by district administrators to participate on a review committee that considered several established programs, including the Wyman Center Teen Outreach Program, (TOP) the Family Life and Sexual Health (FLASH) program developed by the public health department of Seattle, Washington, and the abstinence-only-until-marriage program Choosing the Best.

The mere involvement of Planned Parenthood in providing input led to a raucous February 2014 meeting of the district’s sex education curriculum committee; of the approximately 70 community members who attended, many vehemently condemned more comprehensive approaches to sexuality education, and decried Planned Parenthood for allegedly promoting “abortion and sexual promiscuity.”[8]

As Tempe wrestled with how best to address the gaps in sexual health education enabled by Arizona’s state law, opposition groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) actively discouraged improvements to the curriculum. In the words of ADF litigation counsel Natalie Decker, “Schoolchildren should be able to have a healthy education free from influence by Planned Parenthood’s abortion marketing campaign.”[9]

Despite ultraconservative opposition, more comprehensive sexuality education scored a victory in Tempe: the district’s governing board voted 3-2 in favor of adopting FLASH as the framework for developing its very own local sexuality education curriculum. Contrary to the opposition’s allegations, Planned Parenthood will not be involved in the creation of this new district-specific curriculum.

Among the supporters of approaches modeled on FLASH, one Tempe parent best captured the sentiment favoring comprehensive sexuality education for the district: Diane Hughes, a mother of five, grandmother of thirteen, and great-grandmother of eight, said that schools should provide the facts on all topics, and parents should take responsibility to provide the values:

“…and sex education is no exception. They [students] need to know about potential risks, and they need to know how to protect themselves. … As parents we set values.”[10]


[1] Martha Kempner, “Tucson Students Skipping Sex Ed, Restrictive Policy May Be to Blame,”, May 1, 2014, accessed May 8, 2014 at

[2] Ibid.

[3] Arizona Revised Statute 15-102, accessed May 19, 2014 at

[4] Caitlin Schmidt, “Thousands of Tucson kids are skipping sex ed,” Arizona Daily Star, April 27, 2014, accessed May 8, 2014 at

[5] Editorial: “Let’s talk about sex,” Arizona Daily Star, April 30, 2014, accessed May 8, 2014 at

[6] Schmidt, “Thousands of Tucson kids…”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Dexter Duggan, “Planned Parenthood not popular with Tempe schools’ sex-ed meeting audience,” Arizona Daily Independent, February 5, 2014, accessed May 19, 2014 at

[9] Alliance Defending Freedom, “Arizona School District May Violate State Law to Allow Planned Parenthood Sex-Ed Class”,, March 6, 2014, accessed May 8, 2014 at

[10] Luci Scott, “Tempe school board moves on new sex-ed curriculum,”, May 8, 2014, accessed May 19, 2014 at