How school nurse Molly Wales transformed sex education in Athens

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THE PLAINS, Ohio (WOUB) — A packed class of 40 sixth graders at The Plains Intermediate School sit patiently and whisper to each other as a tall woman with a loose bun creates a paper path between their desks. The woman smiles as she explains these papers represent the menstruation cycle. Laughter spreads as she takes stuffed plush toys out of her bag representing sperm and eggs, and throws them to student volunteers. 

This may seem like an odd way to start one’s week, but for Athens City School District Nurse Molly Wales, teaching reproductive health could not be more fulfilling. Sex education is not an easy topic to teach, but something Wales knew she wanted to fix in the Athens City School District soon after she was hired. She has since constructed sexual health education courses for students throughout their time in grade school and fundamentally changed the conversation surrounding sex education in Athens. 

“We live in a special place, and people really understand the importance of giving kids the information they need in order to make healthy choices for themselves,” Wales said. “It’s about empowering and informing kids.”

Wales was hired to be a school nurse in 2015, but her path to nursing was not a fast one, nor was it typical. 

After graduating from college with a degree in English literature, she decided to celebrate with a six-week backpacking trip in Spain. Six weeks turned into two years of studying flamenco dance in a Spanish dance studio. A teary reunion with her mom and sister led Wales back home to New Mexico where she worked as a freelance writer and magazine editor. Soon, she would meet her husband, who brought her to Athens. She had two children and ran a nonprofit for parenthood resources known as the Athens Birth Circle. 

The Athens Birth Circle supports southeast Ohio families through providing information, resources and community. While serving as executive director for eight years, Wales designed programs to help new mothers under 21 and sponsor doula training. She grew the membership to almost 100 at one point during her time in the role. 

“I sort of always had an interest in birth, starting from the time I was really small, and had an unusual comfort with the idea of birth as a natural process, not a medical process,” Wales said. “When I was having my own babies, and I got into the birth circle, I started to really viscerally feel just how important pregnancy and birth are and how impactful those experiences are for both parents and children.”

A new challenge changed Wales’ course. A divorce meant she needed to find a stable income to be a single mother. That’s when Wales decided to attend a two-year nursing program at Hocking College, inspired by her time with the Athens Birth Circle as a childbirth educator. She wasn’t sure whether she wanted to be a labor and delivery nurse or a school nurse, but lucky for her, Wales got to do both. 

“It was a pretty easy decision,” said Thomas Gibbs, the ACSD superintendent, “We knew our other school nurse was going to be retiring … [Molly] already had students attending the district and had lived here. We knew her and there were high levels of trust to begin with, and so it was a good fit.”

The training was not easy, as Wales slowly integrated into the schools while balancing a second job as a labor and delivery nurse at O’Bleness Hospital. After a year, Wales finally began working full time for the ACSD. It wasn’t long before Wales noticed the need for change. 

It began with an expansion of the puberty lessons in fifth grade. At the time, students were separated by gender and each classroom only learned about their own bodies. Wales watched the hour-long lesson and felt like Athens could be doing more. With Gibbs’ permission, she began a research process based on other school districts’ programming. She ended up with three lessons, each over an hour long, which focus on puberty basics, reproductive changes, and consent and trusted adults.

Molly Wales dances in her carrot costume during a smoothie party at the front of the classroom with students at The Plains Intermediate School.
Molly Wales dances in her carrot costume during a smoothie party at the front of the classroom with students at The Plains Intermediate School. [Provided by Molly Wales]
It was soon after this expansion that Wales learned her fifth-grade lessons were not the only ones needing more attention. 

“I had a high school student who came to me as her school nurse worried she might be pregnant. We were trying to plot out the timing of her period and intercourse and it turns out, she didn’t know if she had had sex, because she wasn’t entirely sure what it was.” Wales said. “This was a kid who’d come up through the Athens school system and couldn’t even identify if she had engaged in the kind of touching that could result in pregnancy.”

Ohio requires little sexual education in public schools, but it does require a priority on teaching abstinence. According to the Ohio Revised Code, conceiving children out of wedlock will likely have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents and society. Adoption is also emphasized as a solution for those who are not financially responsible enough. 

It didn’t take long for Wales to get approval to make a committee of professionals to develop a new curriculum. The group of counselors, social workers, adolescent gynecologists and other sexual health educators spent over a year building ideal education for body safety, puberty and sexual health. The commission developed more programming than what could realistically fit into the students curriculum, but they worked it down into courses for fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth and ninth graders. 

The fourth graders get a short, two-part look at puberty and hygiene as well as a conversation on consent. Each revisit includes a more mature conversation on the previous lesson, adding more age-appropriate details to contemplate and understand. Later in sixth grade, three lessons teach them about fertilization, healthy relationships and objectification in media. Once they’re in middle school as eighth graders, they learn about everything from anatomy to STIs to pornography. As ninth graders, the lessons include a talk about readiness to have sex as they begin their high school careers. 

After the Athens Board of Education approved the courses in 2018, Wales and the other ACSD nurse, Heidi Shaw, got to work. 

“She has a calling and you can tell that when you watch her teach,” Shaw said. “Having someone like Molly … to make sure that they feel comfortable, that they feel normal, and that they feel like they understand and can advocate for themselves. She brings a level of kindness to everyone she works with.”

Still, the workload was heavy, and Wales looked for support from others to teach the courses. The Survivor Advocacy Outreach Program, or SAOP, is a local organization that provides free resources for survivors of sexual violence, domestic violence, human trafficking and stalking. Members of the program joined Wales’ committee for sex education development, so it only made sense for them to join in. 

Brandon Thompson, prevention and training coordinator for SAOP, is one of two staffers who helps teach the classes and fill in where Wales needs him. Thompson went to Athens High School and recognizes the difference Wales has made since he was in school.

“Health was not something I think the school did really well. …When I finally got to meet her, I was like, ‘Oh, she is awesome. This makes sense,’” Thompson said. “One of the things with wanting to help people is you empathize with them and you can take on a lot of their hurt and their pain … in the school where most of the students are looking to her as the person for answers or strength. It’s an immense amount of responsibility.”

Despite that weight, those who work with Wales know it wouldn’t be her if it wasn’t for one more program she helped develop.

Sexual Health in Real Life is a flex credit class taught by Wales and Thompson at the high school level. Students elect to take the class and drive it with their own interests through independent projects. They also take field trips and listen to guest speakers. The students will even go with Wales to help her teach the eighth graders in their sexual education classes. It’s in this class that Wales has built some of her closest bonds with the students. 

“Molly was just an amazing mentor the entire time. She was always very open to hearing students’ opinions,” Bella Grijalva, a former Sexual Health in Real Life student, said. “I struggled a lot my senior year. I was able to approach her as a trusted adult to talk about that. …Molly is the person I admire the most in my life, that I want to embody the most in my life.”

Wales still faces obstacles in her role, but she views those problems as pieces to a puzzle. She runs classes and holds one-on-one meetings for parents with questions or concerns about the classes. When Ohio changed the laws to require an opt-in for the classes rather than an opt-out, Wales was distraught and concerned her programming would be over. It turned out 90% of students stayed in the classes. 

“The biggest challenge in my mind currently is that I can’t do more,” Wales said. “I have voluntarily taken this out and on top of all of my other duties, and a large part of that is only possible because Heidi and the secretaries are available and willing to pick up the slack when I can’t be in the clinic.”

Wales is one of two licensed nurses for the ACSD. The two, with the assistance of one AmeriCorps member, are in charge of the five schools, which serve over 2,000 students.  According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it is recommended every school have their own full-time professional school nurse. 

Even with everything else, Wales keeps the ringer on her phone on at all times in case she needs to rush to another school because an injury or bed bug emergency. 

Wales would love to add a unit about healing from trauma or leave time for small group talks in her current curriculum. Maybe one day, she’ll find the time to develop a class for neurodivergent students or graduating seniors. If it’s possible, it’s clear to many who know her that Wales would be the one to make it happen. 

In the meantime, Wales will continue her day by changing into a carrot costume and assembling a smoothie cart for a fifth-grade class that has filled their good deeds jar. She’ll laugh to herself as she sneaks spinach into the blender and hands it out to eager children who dance around the classroom to the music Wales blasts on her speaker. 

When she’s finished cleaning up, Wales shouts to the class to get on their feet. With a “5-6-7-8,” she has the sugared-up kids sliding along to the Cupid Shuffle, where she still finds time to dance however she can.