'A lot of misinformation': Anthony Betori is on a quest to broaden access to sex education in Texas – San Antonio Express-News
Anthony Betori, director of curriculum and innovation at Healthy Futures of Texas, is involved in creating up sex education curricula to be used in Texas public schools. He also advocates at the state level for policies increasing sex education.
As a recent college graduate helping to form book groups in a public high school in Chicago, Anthony Betori was amazed by how little the students knew about their own bodies. Some of them didn’t even know how a woman becomes pregnant.
“They had like no concept of sexual health,” he said. “I brought in some condoms and tried to explain what they were for, give them a basic intro, and I started to realize just how much that information was needed.”
Up to then, he’d envisioned himself becoming a teacher or a writer, but his experience in that school set him on what he calls his “public health journey.”
Seven years later, as a program director at the local nonprofit Healthy Futures of Texas, he helps to draw up sex education curricula that are used in schools across the state.
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The curricula include lessons on topics ranging from contraception and sexually transmitted infections to the qualities of a healthy relationship and tips to recognize signs of abuse — an important subject in San Antonio with its high rates of domestic violence, he points out.
Since its founding in 2006, Healthy Futures has offered the Big Decisions curriculum targeted toward eighth- and ninth-graders — the nonprofit’s “bread and butter,” he said. It is now designing a second one, On My Way, focused on fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders to help them as they go through puberty.
Betori has focused his career on “providing high-quality, inclusive, affirming sex ed to young people,” he said — something that he didn’t get when he attended Catholic schools growing up. Along with his curriculum work, he advocates for broadened sex education by testifying before the State Board of Education, meeting with local elected officials and just by going into schools and speaking with young people.
To demonstrate what sex education shouldn’t be like, he described the famous scene in “Mean Girls” in which a gym teacher warns students not to have sex at all — “because you will get pregnant and die” — before offering them a bowl of “rubbers.”
“A lot of what I do is trying to build a world where that’s not how young people learn about sex and relationships,” he said. “I say this all the time: Texas can be a leader in sex ed. We have all the potential. We have so many brilliant minds; we have the public support. We just got to keep pushing for it, believe that it’s going to happen”
Betori knows firsthand how strong of an impact a sex-ed class can have on a young person. While growing up in Toledo, Ohio, he attended a lecture about AIDS that was so “wildly incorrect” in its description of homosexual intercourse that it left him terrified.
“I remember I had given blood a couple weeks before, and I was convinced they were going to call me and tell me that I had AIDS, even though I had never had sex in my life,” he said. “Just like wild fear. I grew up with such a sense of fear around sex.”
He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English at Loyola University in Chicago. He is now working on a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University as a fellow in the Bloomberg American Health Initiative, a program designed to train public health experts throughout the U.S.
After graduating from Loyola, he spent nearly three years working for a nonprofit that sent him into Chicago schools and nonprofits to help students develop their reading and writing skills, and thereby increase their social and emotional resilience. It was then that he realized how little sex education some of the students were receiving.
“What we’re really looking for is a space where all young people have the tools they need to be happy and healthy,” Betori says.
While living in Chicago, he attended a public health boot camp. He describes being cloistered in a hotel for a week, studying public health from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day.
“You can’t do anything else with your life; you just have to learn about public health,” he said. “And I was like: Ding! This is what I want to do with my life.”
He went to work for another nonprofit, the Chicago House and Social Service Agency, where he created a workforce development program for young people from communities affected by HIV. In 2018, he moved to Bexar County to be with his boyfriend; the two of them recently celebrated his fourth “Texas-versary,” he said.
Not long after moving here, he joined Healthy Futures of Texas, a nonprofit with offices on the near East Side that had about 13 employees at that time. It now has a staff of 46 after merging with two other nonprofits in August: the Dallas-based North Texas Alliance to Reduce Unintended Pregnancy in Teens and the statewide Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
Nicole Amri, who worked with Betori during her time at the local youth-centered arts nonprofit Say Sí, praised him for his ability to connect with young people. During the pandemic, he and Amri helped bring the two organizations together to collaborate on a sex-ed ’zine, published online.
“I got to watch how a transplant makes the city his home, meets our neighbors and does good work so authentically that people I’ve known for many, many years got to know him right away,” Amri said. “We’re so lucky to have him in the city.”
Healthy Futures has its roots in the Big Decisions sex-ed curriculum. Dr. Janet Realini, a family physician, drew up the curriculum in 2005 after seeing a lot of teen pregnancies and realizing how many of the patients, and even their parents, didn’t know the basics of human reproduction. She went on to found the nonprofit in 2006.
Today, Big Decisions is used in more than 40 school districts across the state — urban, rural, high-income and low-income — mostly in communities along the Interstate 35 corridor.
There aren’t many sex-ed curricula out there, Betori said. Many of the ones that are available were created by deodorant companies looking to sell their products, he said.
Healthy Futures has designed the On My Way curriculum to act as a “stepping stone” to Big Decisions, he said. It will focus more specifically on the changes that students’ bodies are undergoing during puberty; its name is meant to reflect the “journey that they’re on.”
On My Way will be launched this winter, Betori said. A couple of school districts are interested in offering it, but it must first go through a rigorous approval process mandated by state law, under which nearly every district’s School Health Advisory Council, or SHAC, must review the curriculum before the school board can vote to adopt it.
The curricula developed by Healthy Futures typically include a short lecture along with discussion and activities such as “contraception bingo” (the instructor might read out, “this is a method the doctor has to prescribe,” and the students can put a penny on the bingo item “intrauterine device”). There is a box in which students can slip anonymous questions to be answered.
Along with contraceptives, the students learn about sexually transmitted infections, the anatomy of their own bodies, and methods of testing, treatment and prevention. They receive life lessons as well: how to build healthy friendships, how to manage their new romantic feelings and how to identify different types of abuse.
“The way I think is best is we position all that within a person’s own context: their own dreams, their own hopes,” Betori said. “It’s not because if you have a pregnancy as a teen, your life is permanently over — we’re moving away from that framework, because it’s not true of teen parents and it’s disrespectful of how hard they work. What we’re really looking for is a space where all young people have the tools they need to be happy and healthy.”
Betori also goes into schools to train instructors in how to teach the Big Decisions curriculum. One of the things he tells them is that it’s OK to laugh during the classes.
“The way society thinks about sex can be weird and funny; the words that we use to describe body parts can be weird and funny,” he said. “It’s OK to laugh. It’s OK for these moments of humor within this very complex and sometimes confusing and sometimes scary topic.
One of the programs Betori oversees at Healthy Futures is the Youth Advocacy Council, which encourages teens in San Antonio to advocate for broadened sex education and access to health care. Some of the teens have testified before the State Board of Education in support of those goals.
Sex education is getting better in Texas, Betori said. In 2020, thanks to the advocacy of a coalition of organizations that included Healthy Futures, the board of education revised its standards so that starting this year, all middle-schoolers in the state will learn about contraception, healthy relationship boundaries and the HPV vaccine. Previously, most school districts offered no information about contraception to their students, he said.
“It’s a small portion of people who are vocally opposed to the work we do, who only want abstinence-only or who want nothing at all,” he said. “I mean, it makes sense to me why people think that way; I grew up in an abstinence-only household. There’s a lot of misinformation about what happens when you teach people about sex ed — the idea it might sexualize people, or cause them to have sex. But we know that that’s not true.”
There’s still a lot of room for improvement in sex-ed policy throughout the state, he said, noting that the board of education’s new standards do not require that students be offered any material about the LGBTQ community.
Now that Healthy Futures’ merger is complete, the expanded organization has a statewide strategy to broaden access to sex education, he said. In the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature, it plans to push for an expansion of Medicaid, among other things.
The goal — and he believes it is entirely possible — is for Texas to be a national leader in sex education.
“I don’t think that shooting for anything less is worthwhile,” he said. “What we’re interested in is the health and wellness of young people — and that’s something everybody can get behind. Nobody wants their kid to have a pregnancy when they’re 15. Nobody wants their kid to get gonorrhea. Nobody wants their kid to experience abuse. Where we can build bridges around that common goal is where we focus our energy.”
Richard Webner is a freelance business writer and former real estate reporter for the Express-News. He earned a graduate degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and an undergraduate degree in History from Northwestern University.