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