Thursday, July 24, 2008

THE TROUBLE WITH ABSTINENCE: Texas keeps a tight lid on sex ed

In the little time I've spent working with Austin HS students (young women) I can say that talking about sexuality is a major topic of discussion for them. A policy that places stringent limits their ability to discuss and gain information on this issue is very counterproductive to preparing youth for life. My personal opinion.


Area schools differ in what they tell teens about sex, but not by much.

Monday, July 14, 2008

When it comes to sex, what kids are taught in school varies widely from state to state and often from school district to school district.

In Texas, the education code treats human sexuality differently from the rest of the public school curriculum. Unlike subjects such as English or history, course materials dealing with sexual issues are reviewed by local advisory councils of parents and community representatives, with the specific content of what's taught to be decided by each school board.

But local latitude goes only so far, thanks to Texas' appetite for federally funded abstinence programs — it leads the nation in spending for abstinence instruction— and the state's restrictions on what teachers may tell their students about sex and contraceptives.

In the Austin Independent School District, high school teachers routinely leave pamphlets and brochures about teen pregnancy, contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases on a table in the classroom. But their health textbooks omit information on contraceptives, which is relegated to an optional supplement.

As in all public schools in Texas, Austin district teachers are forbidden to hand out condoms, and the district does not allow instruction on proper use. The state requires that information about condoms be given "in terms of human use reality rates" — an estimate that condoms are effective, on average, only 85 percent of the time, with failures usually due to improper handling or inconsistent use.

That's in contrast to some schools in California, where teachers can demonstrate how to wear condoms by rolling them onto bananas. And in Portland, Maine, school board members approved a measure last year that allows middle school students, who range from 11 to 15 years old, to get birth control prescriptions from the school's health center.

Twenty years ago, Texas teachers had more freedom to talk about condoms and birth control methods as part of health courses that covered a broad range of sexual, reproductive and family issues. That is now considered "comprehensive" sex education. With few exceptions, it is a thing of the past in Texas public schools.

That dismays state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who co-authored abstinence legislation in 1995, believing it still gave school districts room to fully inform students about condom and contraceptive use. Instead, he said, conservatives have used the education code to limit what students are taught.

"Abstinence should be discussed like a method of birth control, but that's where they're not following the law," Coleman said. "I think they're just saying, 'Don't have sex.' "

Indeed, individual school districts could have a broader discussion about sexual matters in the classroom if they want to, said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. And though Texas schools are not required to teach sex education, state curriculum standards (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) set expectations regarding knowledge of sexual matters, she said.

"We set the ultimate goal so that students will know about sex education and abstinence, but we don't tell districts how to achieve that goal. We give them the flexibility to decide how," Ratcliffe said.

Few school districts have done so, leaving some teachers uncertain how much information they can give their students.

"That's something (the Hays school district) is looking at right now. How far can we go when we're talking about contraception?" said Whitney Self, a health teacher at Chapa Middle School.

'It breaks my heart'

Some parents say that more information about sexual matters is better than none.

Magdalena Cano said that while she was growing up her mother made her "scared to death to talk about sex." So Cano, now 40, vowed to be honest and open with her own daughter about sex. It's especially important to her now that her 16-year-old daughter, Jessica Enyioha, a Crockett High School student, is dating for the first time.

Cano said she wants schools to teach everything about sex.

"Condoms, birth control, STDs, everything," said Cano, who sees many pregnant teens in her job as a family support worker with Healthy Families Travis County.

"Unfortunately, in the program I work with, we're seeing the moms younger and younger, so I really feel like the more information, the better," said Cano. "It's not to say (getting pregnant) won't happen, but hopefully they'll make informed decisions."

The same goes for Mary Galer, a grandmother to three teenage girls, one of whom is eight months pregnant.

"She'll have the baby while she's 16," Galer said of her granddaughter, who recently graduated from Crockett. "It breaks my heart."

Galer said she recently enrolled her 14-year-old granddaughter, the youngest of the three, in teen pregnancy prevention classes at the University of Texas campus. "With the youngest," Galer said of her granddaughter, "there's still hope."

But Monica Reyes, the mother of two boys in Hyde Park Baptist School, said instruction on sex and contraceptives should take place at home, not school, and that discussing these subjects with her children is her "right as a parent."

A 2006 national survey reported that 82 percent of parents want sex education that teaches students about not only abstinence but other methods of preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, such as condoms and birth control methods. The survey, published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, showed that 68.5 percent of parents want schools to teach proper use of condoms. Years before, another survey by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found similar results.

Abstinence proponents hail their own study, done by Zogby International in 2003, which found that the majority of parents support values taught in abstinence-only programs, teaching, for instance, that sex should be linked to love and intimacy, which are most likely to occur in the context of marriage.

'A no, no, no thing'

Texas leads the nation in the amount of federal funding it gets for abstinence programs (almost $17 million, matched with $3 million in state funds last year), which trickles down to more than 1,200 school districts and charter schools through direct grants and grants to private contractors. The money has a single purpose: teaching "the social psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity."

Even school districts that don't take the money, such as Austin, may contract with companies that do, and that abstinence instruction is defined by federal strictures. School districts that do neither are still bound by the state education code, which is similarly restrictive.

Ten school districts in Central Texas, including Austin, Eanes, Hays and Leander, have policies emphasizing that abstinence be taught as the only sure protection from pregnancy and STDs and limiting instruction on contraceptives. The Austin district's policy does allow "spontaneous class discussions generated by student questions."

Rita Gonzales, a health teacher at Bowie High School, said she is comfortable having discussions about contraceptives with her students. "We're hoping that the kids would stay abstinent until they are married, but we're not stopped from talking about birth control. We just can't show them how to use it."

However, she said talking about condoms was "like a no, no, no thing" in the mid-1990s when she taught at Leander High School. "We weren't told either way, but it was assumed we couldn't," Gonzales said.

In the six years that Jan Halstead has been executive director of abstinence programs in the Leander schools, she does not remember a time when teachers couldn't discuss contraceptives, though she said the district's sex education policy changed about the time she started.

"The way it's generally presented is, if you're in a relationship — if you're married — and you don't want to have a baby, here are some preventative methods," Halstead said. "If you use this method, this is the percentage of times that it works and here's the time it doesn't work."

The abstinence message is not only about sex. It also emphasizes self-empowerment, self-respect and being comfortable with setting physical boundaries. The idea is that choosing to refrain from sex will not only prevent a pregnancy or an STD, but lead to a healthy lifestyle, with fewer distractions from school and a better relationship with parents.

As a component of the health course that's required for high school graduation, abstinence programs are the only portion of the academic curriculum routinely taught by outside contractors instead of accredited teachers.

"The law is broad enough that any course could be contracted out, but it's still a rarity," said the TEA's Ratcliffe.

Tracy Lunoff, the Austin district's school health coordinator, said there's a difference between teaching a class and presenting one, and abstinence contractors simply add to information teachers already have given students.

"We assume that (the contractors) have done their own pre-screening of their volunteers," she said., 246-0043


Curriculum content shall ... include the most current and scientifically accurate information regarding child and adolescent health issues, contraception and accurate information on failure rates, and risk reduction of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) including HIV.

Abstinence shall be taught as the only sure protection from risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection.

Contraceptive devices shall not be demonstrated nor disseminated in district facilities.

Spontaneous class discussions generated by student questions shall not be precluded by this policy.

The Texas Education Code

Any course materials and instruction relating to human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases or Human Immunodeficiency Virus or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome ... must teach contraception and condom use in terms of human use reality rates instead of theoretical laboratory rates, if instruction on contraception and condoms is included in curriculum content.

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