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Some Oklahoma churches are teaching sex ed, since it's not required in public schools

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Comprehensive sex education can be a matter of faith. Some churches are stepping in to teach sex ed in states where it is not a required subject in the public schools. Jillian Taylor with StateImpact Oklahoma takes us to Oklahoma City.

KALYN MCKENZIE-SCOGGINS: All right. Does anyone remember what we talked about last week?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Nope.

MCKENZIE-SCOGGINS: Oh, come on. I know someone does.

JILLIAN TAYLOR, BYLINE: Kalyn McKenzie-Scoggins is trying to coax a group of seventh through ninth graders to recall what they've learned in their sex ed class at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa. She says she's starting conversations that public schools here won't.

MCKENZIE-SCOGGINS: I had a terrible education, and then I had kids. And I went, I don't want to do that, but I don't know what to do. And then I started doing this.

TAYLOR: Oklahoma is one of 10 states that only mandates AIDS prevention instruction in schools. That leaves the rest up to school districts, where levels of sex education vary. At least five churches in Oklahoma have stepped up to fill the gap. All Souls uses Our Whole Lives, or OWL, which is a national curriculum that can be used in secular and church settings. It provides age-appropriate lessons on topics like relationships, gender identity, sexual orientation and health. All Souls parents attend a meeting before the course to find out what their kids will learn. Shannon Boston is a director of religious education at All Souls. She says the class centers around the church's values.

SHANNON BOSTON: To dwell together in peace, to be peaceful, to seek the truth in love and to help one another - that's our basic covenant.

TAYLOR: One student who benefitted from the sex ed classes at All Souls is Margo Starr. She grew up in the church. She became a leader among her peers at her public school because she has had sex education.

MARGO STARR: No one else knew the reproductive organs or, like, the technical terms of any of these things. Like, my friends would ask me questions, and especially, like, when we got into high school.

TAYLOR: Only 25 states mandate sex ed in public schools. Fewer states require teaching information on contraceptive methods, and even fewer on consent and sexual orientation. That's according to the Guttmacher Institute, where Kimya Forouzan keeps track of state policies on sex education. She says it's a patchwork across the country that deprives many of the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about sex.

KIMYA FOROUZAN: It's really vital that young people get the accurate information that they deserve.

TAYLOR: According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, comprehensive sex ed is linked to reduced rates of teen pregnancy, sexual activity and risky behaviors. Forouzan says, these rates are higher in states where an abstinence-only view of sex is emphasized, like in Oklahoma. That's what Jenny Briggs is seeing. She works with a group called Amplify Youth Collective in Tulsa. It advocates for access to sex ed in Oklahoma, which currently has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the U.S., according to federal data. Briggs says it also has high rates of sexually transmitted infections.

JENNY BRIGGS: We know that Oklahoma is experiencing an STI crisis, and we see kind of a link there between the questions or the misconceptions young people have.

TAYLOR: While it's hard to track what individual schools in Oklahoma are teaching about sex ed, some young people find the church to be a reliable place to get the information they need.

For NPR News, I'm Jillian Taylor in Oklahoma City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jillian Taylor