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How Vermont is providing sex education as the country debates abortion access

A collage image reads "sex ed in Vermont" and shows two hands holding a box of condoms. Surrounding it are parakeets with speech bubbles showing fire and love emojis, a bee, condoms, the supreme court, all set on a background of lightning, lava and river beds.
Elodie Reed / Anna Van Dine
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Vermont Public
Sex education has taken on new importance since the overturn of Roe v Wade. Vermont has relatively progressive sex ed policies, but students say the state could do better.

Dorey Myers placed a cardboard box, pink and decorated with flowers, on her desk in the nurse's office at Milton High school. She lifted the lid and rifled through the contents.

“So you got dental dams, you got some condoms. And they're usually in a basket in there,” she said, gesturing at the front room.

A basket full of condoms in the nurse’s office, free for the taking, is not something you’d find at every public high school in the U.S. But it is something you’d find at every public high school in Vermont.

A woman sits at a desk in the center of a collage. A scene that's warm yellow and showing tree-like figures is directly behind her. She is surrounded by stars, flowers, and a colorful parrot. A drawing of a hand with a flower emerging from it, with lily pads, is above her head.
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
Dorey Myers, the nurse at Milton High School, hopes students will come to her or another trusted adult with questions about sex and contraception.

Some schools, like Milton, have made contraception available to students for years. Then in 2021, Vermont became the first state in the country to legally require all middle and high schools to have free condoms.

“A lot of times what happens when a kid comes in that's curious, we'll just start the conversation,” Myers said. “You can kind of figure out like, what they're asking.”

Myers said students who come into her office for condoms are often embarrassed, and have lots of questions, even if they don’t admit it at first.

“You have people on the spectrum of like, they are willing to talk about sex, are willing to talk about consent, are willing to kind of just really have this open conversation," she said. "And then you still have kids that are like, (gasp!) sex. Like, 'I haven't even talked about that before.'"

A collage that shows snow-laden tall fir trees against a background of orange canyon rocks with light poring through a crevasse. The word "american" is across the top of the image, the word "protection" is across the bottom, and two carrots poke up along one edge of the image.
Elodie Reed
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Vermont Public
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization, less than half of U.S. states say students have to learn about contraception, and only about 30 mandate sex education.

In addition to the free condoms, Vermont’s sex ed policies are relatively progressive. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization, less than half of U.S. states say students have to learn about contraception, and only about 30 mandate sex education.

More from Vermont Public: Vermont First State Requiring Secondary Schools To Give Out Free Condoms

Research shows that teens who have comprehensive sex ed are less likely to have unintended pregnancies than those who have abstinence-only education. And increasing access to contraception can also help prevent unintended pregnancies — not to mention sexually transmitted infections and HIV.

“I think that everybody with half a brain can figure that out,” said Francis “Topper” McFaun, a state representative from Barre. He wrote the bill that required secondary schools to make condoms available.

McFaun is a pro-choice Republican, and took a far different approach than more conservative members of his party. Republicans in a number of states have sought to limit sex education.

For example, in Texas, where abortions were banned after the reversal of Roe v Wade, the GOP’s official platform would ban sex ed from being taught in public schools. In New Hampshire, Republicans repeatedly stalled funding for a sex ed program for at-risk teenagers.

A collage reads "access is everything." The text is surrounded by butterflies. It's set against a background that starts red in the center and slowly becomes orange, then yellow then green.
Elodie Reed
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Vermont Public
According to one health teacher, having contraception available in schools is even more important in small towns, where privacy can be hard to maintain.

But McFaun said the data showed him something different. Condom availability does not increase sexual activity among teenagers, according to the CDC, and data from the Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows that almost 60% of teenagers have sex before graduating high school.

“So let's, let's make sure that we give them every opportunity to avoid unintended pregnancies, and also having to make that devastating decision,” McFaun said.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed the bill.

Access to free contraception is just one of the ways that Vermont has positioned its schools as a place for students to learn about reproductive health. Health classes are required to include information about contraceptives, pregnancy, and abortion.

"[L]et's make sure that we give them every opportunity to avoid unintended pregnancies, and also having to make that devastating decision."
Rep. Francis "Topper" McFaun, a Republican from Barre

That took on a new significance after the overturn of Roe v Wade, and now, some people are calling for more policies like Vermont’s. They say that without federal abortion protections, robust sex ed and access to contraception could not be more important.

“We don't come into the world knowing about the answers to these things, and so it's important that we educate young people about these topics as they are developing,” said Jessica Sales, a professor at Emory University. Her work focuses on public health strategies that support healthy sexual development in young people.

“When you are not educating and wrapping in prevention, particularly teaching around contraception, other types of ways to prevent unintended pregnancy, that becomes very problematic,” Sales said.

A collage shows the words "relevant information" and an exploding galaxy.
Elodie Reed
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Vermont Public
Research shows that comprehensive sex education are less likely to have unintended pregnancies than those who have abstinence-only education.

Sara Ambrose, 17, agrees.

“I think it's really important to understand safe sex and just to prevent a situation where you may need an abortion, and you just can't get one because of the law,” Ambrose said.

When Roe v Wade was overturned in June, Ambrose was finishing up her junior year at Milton High school. She happened to be learning about important Supreme Court decisions in her history class.

“And it was just really scary to see that… this moment in time is also going to probably be in history books, about like the overturning of it,” she said.

Even though Vermont just codified abortion rights in the state Constitution, Ambrose thinks that historic Supreme Court decision makes learning about sex and contraception even more important for young people like her.

A young person sits at the center of a collage. She is surrounded by flowers, black-and-white illustrations of birds, a cat shooting lasers out of its eyes, and images of giraffes and lighting bugs. Behind everything is a multi-color backdrop.
Elodie Reed
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Vermont Public
Sara Ambrose, a senior at Milton High School, said her sex ed experience was lacking. Her class was during the COVID-19 pandemic, and taught by a long-term substitute.

Jasper Lorien thinks so too. They’re a student activist, and a senior at U-32 High School in Montpelier.

“You can do a lot of preventative measures by teaching sexual health effectively, teaching contraception effectively, teaching that abstinence is not the only option. And in general making people young people feel safe talking about sex and learning about sex,” Lorien said.

Both Lorien and Ambrose say that despite Vermont’s relatively progressive stance on sex education, the state could do a lot better, like requiring education around queer sex and putting more emphasis on consent. (Currently, the state does not require education on either topic.)

“You can do a lot of preventative measures by teaching sexual health effectively, teaching contraception effectively, teaching that abstinence is not the only option. And in general making people young people feel safe talking about sex and learning about sex."
Jasper Lorien, U-32 High School student and activist

A lot of what gets covered in class is up to the health teacher, which Lorien says can be a problem.

“It's very unfair that one student at one school is going to be able to have a comprehensive understanding about how to keep themselves safe, another student at another school is going to have nothing but shame,” they said.

Sara Ambrose says she wishes adults understood that young people just want to have open conversations, and get their questions answered.

“Instead of being like, ‘Oh, you're too young, like, you don't really need to know about that stuff,’” she said.

A collage that's pink and purple, and has planet rings surrounding an image of lips blowing a bubble. Pink flowers are in one corner, and the text "young generation, new generation" is along the bottom of the image
Elodie Reed
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Vermont Public
Vermont high school students say they wish public schools would facilitate more open conversations about sex ed so they could get their questions answered.

Dorey Myers, the nurse at Milton, is ready to have those conversations. And she thinks the basket of condoms in her office is a step in the right direction.

“The big piece of it — it's not the condom itself. But it's the fact that kids feel safe enough to come and talk to an adult about something that they're — that they've been told to be shameful about," Myers said.

She knows not everyone will feel comfortable coming to her office, but she’s there for those who do.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Anna is a reporter and co-hosts Vermont Public's daily news podcast, The Frequency, with Henry Epp.