Why is it so difficult to teach sex-ed in Arizona?

Parental rights laws and bureaucracy leave teachers and staff confused on what can be taught. In the end, teaching nothing might be easier.

Why is it so difficult to teach sex-ed in Arizona?
Illustration by LOOKOUT

In 2019, Arizona repealed a decades-old law that prohibited discussing same-sex relationships in a positive light. The bill, colloquially referred to as the "no promo homo” bill, was among the first bills in the nation that Florida’s newest “Don’t Say Gay” bill is modeled after.  

Axing the bill from the state’s books was successful through bipartisan support in the legislature, and its repeal was supposed to have the most impact on sex education: In a time when many states and districts began to focus on a more inclusive curriculum that included teaching about gender, sexuality, and consent, Arizona lagged behind the rest. 

What can schools teach if they offer sex education?

  1. If offered, sex education is required to promote childbirth and adoption over abortions. Schools risk funding cuts if they don't comply.
  2. Schools are not required to teach kids about assault, dating abuse, and abuse prevention.
  3. Sex education cannot be taught before fifth grade, but medically accurate HIV prevention can be taught from kindergarten through 12th grade. Though, it's unclear if that includes teaching about pre-exposure prophylaxis treatments.
  4. School districts can have the Department of Healthcare Services review content and ensure medical accuracy, but it is not required.
  5. Lessons shall be ungraded and taught to boys and girls separately.
  6. Guardians and parents must opt-in to sex education lessons at all grade levels.

But advocates and educators contend that since repealing “no promo homo,” topics in sex education have become politicized and harder to teach. This is partly to do with the push for more parental control over the curriculum taught in schools and the byzantine process that districts must navigate in order to get sex education taught.  

That process, experts say, is leaving children vulnerable and at risk.

LOOKOUT spoke with teachers, staff, and public health experts who said that despite rising HIV rates and other sexually transmitted infections in the state, along with the benefits associated with comprehensive sex education—encompassing gender, sexuality, consent, dating violence, and sexually transmitted infection prevention and treatment—districts are failing to address a critical moment in public health.

The stakes

In Arizona, only “4% of LGBTQ+ students in Arizona reported receiving LGBTQ+-inclusive sex education at school” according to a state profile by GLSEN, an LGBTQ+ education group. The report also showed that most of the queer-identifying students they identified in Arizona experienced victimization at school, likely due to content restrictions: the group’s report found that in states with more LGBTQ+ restrictions in schools, educators are “discouraged from providing other support for LGBTQ students.”

Across the nation, LGBTQ+ students are often categorized as most at risk for poor mental, physical, and medical health outcomes due to lack of comprehensive sex education. 

And LGBTQ+ high school students who were sexually active were about twice as likely as other students to report becoming pregnant or getting someone pregnant, according to a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Implementing a proper curriculum, educators said, can address those issues.  

But when at least one local district started to take on the process of creating a curriculum, they were operating off of old laws. 

On Feb. 14 this year, the Scottsdale Unified School District had its first meeting for its Sex Education Advisory Committee. In there, Scottsdale Unified cited and linked to the state’s outdated educational code that included anti-LGBTQ+ regulations, such as curriculum being required to  “promote honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage"—language that was supposed to be removed after 2019's repeal of the "No Promo Homo" law.

"No Promo Homo"

During the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s and 1990’s, eight states across the nation enacted so-called “no promo homo” laws in their educational code. Arizona’s bill—passed in 1991—said “no district shall include in its course of study instruction which…  Promotes a homosexual life‑style.”

While Arizona’s “no promo homo” law was in place, the line between legislation and policy became blurred, said Madelaine Adelman, an Arizona State University professor and founder of GLSEN Arizona, an LGBTQ+ educational nonprofit.

The 1991 bill created a “really untenable set of conditions for educators, parents and students.” she said. “There was this assumption that you couldn't talk about LGBTQ people in sex ed.”

The ACLU argued the law was being harnessed in more insidious ways: they said it was being “used to harass school districts that attempt to provide inclusive and comprehensive sex education,” according to court records. 

In 2019, two students and Equality Arizona sued the state department of education, claiming the law violated their constitutional rights, specifically the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. 

In the lawsuit, one student said he worried he would not be able to learn medically accurate information in school to keep him safe and healthy. The other student transferred schools after being bullied with anti-LGBTQ+ slurs. 

During the law’s 28 years in place, it “amounted to an official state-sanctioned climate of discrimination,” former House Democratic Leader Charlene Fernandez said in a statement after the law was repealed.

Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas still have laws limiting the teaching of same-sex relationships in public schools. 

Despite the bipartisan support of removing “no promo homo” from the books, there was swift backlash from far-right conservatives, according to a source who worked in the department of education at the time under former public school superintendent Kathy Hoffman, but doesn’t have permission to speak on the topic. 

In that time period after the law change, the source said, there was intense scrutiny in trying to remove certain language from Arizona’s code of enforcement—the rules created by agencies after a bill becomes law. 

Arizona rules still dictate that sex education should not include teaching of "abnormal" sexual conduct, but what that means is left entirely up to what districts perceive them to be, leaving LGBTQ+ people often left out and at most risk. (AZ Department of Education)

One code that required teachers to “promote honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage,” wasn’t removed until 2021. However, part of the regulation remains that prevents “the teaching of abnormal, deviate, or unusual sexual acts and practices.”

The problem with opt-in education

Arizona public schools are not required to teach sex education at any level, and there are no requirements to teach students about child assault awareness, sexually transmitted diseases or infections, dating abuse, or abuse prevention. 

And when they do, parents have to opt their child into the instruction—a direct result of the state’s 2010 parental bill of rights. 

In order to teach sex education, districts have to go through a multi-step process where decisions get made from the top of the system down to parents and guardians and, eventually, students. And in that process, Adelman side, there is room for intentional and unintended messages that stigmatize the LGBTQ+ community. 

First, dIstricts have to decide if they want to make sex education part of their curriculum. If they do, state law requires them to form a committee that will review course materials and vote on what will be taught. 

There are some parameters: For example, schools can teach about the transmission of HIV, but it should be couched in language that only abstinence—not medical prevention—is the best way to avoid transmission. 

Another example, schools can teach about unwanted sexual touch, but it must do so within the parameters of community “sensitivities,” which education and legal experts said is too vague and leaves room for interpretations that harm LGBTQ+ students and families. 

Once the committee selects the curriculum, parents get the final review. If the curriculum passes, districts are required to get parental sign off on materials used in classrooms. 

But therein lies a snag, educators have told LOOKOUT. The process to get opt-in forms is difficult and teachers said they don’t have enough time to put together an alternative curriculum in the event some students don’t get opted into the curriculum. 

Unlike most states that use an opt-out policy—where parents or guardians can simply sign paperwork to remove their students from instruction—Arizona and Tennessee are the only states to have opt-in policies. 

According to a policy brief by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., opt-in policies have strategically been “designed to make accessing sex education in schools more difficult.”  

Still, Arizona lawmakers have continued pushing opt-in regulations. This year, Sen. Jake Hoffman (R.-Queen Creek) proposed a bill that would criminalize teachers and school staff as felons if they didn’t get parental sign off on “sexually explicit materials” used in classrooms. 

Logan Martin, a Phoenix-based educator, said that in secondary schools, opt-in forms are rarely used. 

Teachers, she said, cannot predict when students will bring up conversations on sexual education. So, she said, teachers either have the conversation when it happens organically, or they shut down students’ questions and curiosity.

The fear of lawsuits has teachers worried, but also at a loss on what to do: Martin, who used to teach at a school with a primarily Latino student population, said that the state’s opt-in policy has made it difficult for students who live in communities where caregivers aren’t always able to be wholly involved in their child’s education

“Educators are concerned,” said Adelman. “They want to do the right thing, but they also want to keep their jobs and so there’s some residual fear.” 


An earlier version of this story labeled Sen. Jake Hoffman as representing Gilbert. He represents Queen Creek. We regret the error.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to LOOKOUT .

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.

LOOKOUT Publications is a federally recognized nonprofit news outlet. EIN Number:92-3129757