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Fairfax County School Board delays decision on making sex ed more co-ed

Fairfax County Public Schools currently separates middle school students into “boy” and “girl” groups for sex-education classes (via Samuel Regan-Asante/Unsplash)

Middle school sex education classes in Fairfax County will remain separated by gender going into the next school year.

A majority of the Fairfax County School Board agreed on Tuesday (May 24) to postpone a vote on whether to introduce gender-combined Family Life Education (FLE) classes for students in grades 4-8 and 10th grade, along with other proposed changes intended to make the curriculum more inclusive.

The recommendations came from the FLE Curriculum Advisory Committee (FLECAC), which advises Fairfax County Public Schools staff on instructional materials and goals. FCPS Chief Academic Officer Sloan Presidio said this year’s report contained the most recommended changes he has seen in 10 years with the school system.

At the work session, several board members said they feel more time is needed to study the recommendations and conduct community outreach. FLECAC’s reports are typically open for a 30-day review period around the end of each school year.

“This is for many people an uncomfortable conversation, an uncomfortable topic, and just out of sheer respect for that, I understand the need to have further conversation and engage our families and speak to them as to why this recommendation was made,” Board Chair and Sully District Representative Stella Pekarsky said.

According to the FLECAC report, FCPS currently separates boys and girls in fourth through eighth grade for lessons on puberty, reproductive systems and processes, sexually transmitted infections, and abstinence. 10th grade students are separated for a lesson on self-examinations for breast and testicular cancer.

The committee proposes making those classes co-ed to better include LGBTQ, intersex, and other gender-diverse students, while giving all students the “opportunity to learn about individuals who are different from themselves” and normalizing conversations “that will be important to healthy relationships.”

“Dividing students into boys and girls classes sends a message that bodies different than their own should not be talked about and are mysterious,” the report says. “When students are separated by boys and girls, it affirms a rigid binary based on anatomy.”

Many school divisions across Virginia already combine genders for all or most sex-education classes, including Arlington, Alexandria City, and Virginia Beach City, according to FLECAC, which says in its report that there’s no “available research to support the practice of gender-segregated instruction.”

Karl Frisch and Laura Jane Cohen, who represent the Providence and Springfield districts, respectively, voted against extending the community review period, which FCPS staff said would delay implementation of any changes until the 2023-2024 school year.

“This change would align our program with best practices,” Frisch said.

However, other board members said more time for community feedback is needed to hear from a variety of perspectives, including from students, on FLECAC’s proposals, which also include adding gender to a 10th grade lesson about human sexuality.

FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand told the board that “very few” students opt out of the FLE program, and it’s important that the community understands the rationale for the proposed changes.

“What we want is for families to continue to access this curriculum and not opt out of information that I think is critical for young people,” Brabrand said.

FCPS Pride, an advocacy group for LGBTQ staff and families, said in a statement that it was surprised by the school board’s decision to postpone a vote on the FLE changes. The group says it supports gender-combined classes so students don’t have to “out” themselves or choose a gender, and research suggests more inclusive classes lead to healthier behaviors.

“We are confident that the school board will adopt gender-inclusive FLE classes,” FCPS Pride said. “They are best practices, common around the state and nation, and backed up by a substantial amount of academic and practical research. FCPS is a world-class school system precisely because we learn about and follow research-backed best practices.”

Photo via Samuel Regan-Asante/Unsplash

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