Sex ed debate: Teaching about contraception is a key divide

Adam Robison | Daily Journal Mooreville High School students from left, Gabrielle West, Savanna Bruce, Deanna Houser and Jennaffer Loar listen during a sex education class taught last month by Savannah Carter.

Adam Robison | Daily Journal
Mooreville High School students from left, Gabrielle West, Savanna Bruce, Deanna Houser and Jennaffer Loar listen during a sex education class taught last month by Savannah Carter.

By Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

More Mississippi teenagers are having sex than their peers in other states.

They’re also having more babies.

Reducing that number, experts say, must involve education about the risks of those behaviors. That includes providing information to school children.

“Students are going to make choices on their own,” said Interim State Superintendent of Education Lynn House. “We can not be with them 24/7 to tell them the choices they are going to make. But we need to at the least give them clear, correct information.”

Mississippi’s Legislature passed a law in 2011 requiring all school districts to offer sex-education courses. Districts have the option of choosing either an abstinence-only or an abstinence-plus curriculum. The latter gives districts more leeway to teach about birth control. Neither allows for condom demonstrations.

The 2011 Centers of Disease Control and Prevention behavioral risk factor survey found 57.9 percent of Mississippi high school students reported having had sex, compared with 47.4 percent of their peers in other states. It also found 11.8 percent of Mississippi high school students reported having had sex before age 13, compared to 6.2 percent nationally.

Mississippi’s teenage birth rate in 2011 was 50.2 births for every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19. That ranked 49th nationally, barely ahead of Arkansas’ 50.7.

The question is whether sex education classes can impact those statistics. Are teenagers impressionable enough to change behavior based on what they learn in those sessions? And if so, what should be taught?

“You have to talk about the repercussions of teenagers having children,” said former Mississippi Secretary of State Dick Molpus, who still serves as an advocate for public education. “A lot of it is that teenagers a lot of times can’t see that far into the future. But you talk about it to them.”

More than 92 percent of Mississippi parents supported the teaching of sex education at an age-appropriate level in the state’s public school system, according to a survey conducted by Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center. The survey was commissioned by the Center for Mississippi Health Policy shortly after the new law was passed.

Parents also were asked about specific topics they would like to see included in the curriculum. Nearly all of them supported teaching the benefits of abstinence (96 percent), as well as teaching birth control methods (90 percent). About 72 percent supported condom demonstrations.

“The effectiveness of sex education depends on a variety of factors,” said Jamie Bardwell, director of programs at The Women’s Fund of Mississippi. “Just having sex ed does not mean it is going to change any behaviors.”

The key, Bardwell said, is using a curriculum that has been proven to change behaviors and using trained teachers. She advocates for abstinence-plus policies.

The heart of the debate over sex education in Mississippi’s public schools is whether teens should be told how to use birth control. Last year, 81 school districts chose the abstinence-only model and 71 used abstinence-plus. Two used a combination.

Most of the abstinence-plus districts were located in the Mississippi Delta – where teenage births also are higher – but every congressional district in the state has each model.

Both sides have strong advocates.

Abstinence-plus

Mississippi First, an education advocacy organization, has worked with the State Department of Health to develop the Creating Healthy and Responsible Teens initiative. It works with participating school districts to increase adoption of abstinence-plus policies and provides free resources and training to districts in the highest needs counties.

Funding comes from a $2 million grant the state received under a provision of the Affordable Care Act designed to support teen-pregnancy prevention.

Thirty-four districts have adopted the CHART Policy, including Oxford and Houston in Northeast Mississippi. It uses two curricula – “Draw the Line, Respect the Line” for sixth- to eighth-grade students and “Reducing the Risk” for ninth-graders.

Sanford Johnson, deputy director of Mississippi First, said each was chosen because research has shown them effective for reducing teenage pregnancy.

Among their primary objectives, he said, is helping students to be able to set and communicate their own boundaries and to delay sexual relationships as long as possible.

That said, there are three types of students, Johnson said. That includes those who have not had sex and will abstain until they are married or in a long-term relationship, those who are not sexually active but will become so before marriage and those who already are sexually active.

“You need a policy that addresses all of their needs,” Johnson said.

“For those waiting, you need to encourage them to keep waiting as long as they can. For those who are sexually active or will become so, they need medically accurate information, they need to be able to set boundaries, they need to be able to communicate to their partner and be able to see when someone else is setting boundaries. Abstinence-plus is the only way to address that for all students.”

Abstinence-only

On the other side of the debate is Tupelo’s Parkgate Pregnancy Clinic, which has been teaching abstinence-only sex education in Tupelo for about five years. Since the new law was passed, it has spread its MPower program to at least one school in the Lee County, Itawamba County, Amory, Chickasaw County and Pontotoc County school districts.

Private giving to the faith-based organization allows it to teach its WAIT Training curriculum at no cost to participating schools. It also funds instructors from the community to lead the lesson. Its curriculum is not religious.

Jill West, Parkgate’s director of community development, said it describes the risk of sexually transmitted diseases.

“When you think about contraceptives, the only thing you think about is pregnancy,” West said. “We have to think about, and what we teach, is the negative consequences of STDs, not to mention the emotional effects that having premarital sex can have on a young person. No contraceptive can prevent any of those things.”

Parkgate Executive Director Jima Alexander said MPower aims to postpone a student’s first sexual experience as long as possible. For those who are already sexually active, it emphasizes what it calls “secondary virginity.”

“At any point in time, you can choose to stop and you can make that change and turn your life around,” West said. “We really talk about that and stress that. You can start all over with a clean slate.”

Alexander said they have received “stacks of letters” from students who have completed the program and said “they want a clean slate and want to start all over again.” She said abstinence shouldn’t be taught as if students are missing out on something, but instead as a “risk-avoidance behavior.”

District decisions

In the conservative South, school chiefs also face political pressures in choosing which of the curricula to adopt. Tupelo Schools Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction Leigh Mobley, whose district uses an abstinence-only curriculum, said the structure of the law leads some districts to take that option.

The law details what districts may teach in sex-education classes. Abstinence-only districts can chose from that list, while abstinence-plus districts must include every component.

“If you do abstinence-only, you can choose some of those indicators, but you don’t have to do them all,” Mobley said. “If you do abstinence-plus, you have to do every one of them. Most districts are not going to choose that because it gives them less leeway in how they produce their program.”

Bardwell said she does not feel it is coincidence the abstinence-plus policy is more restrictive to districts. She believes that was the intention of conservative lawmakers.

Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks said his district chose an abstinence-only curriculum to “err on the side of caution.”

“We are going to advocate abstinence,” he said. “We are not going to enter into the realm of what you do if you decide to become sexually active. We feel that is a subject best handled by the parent. We don’t want to take the place of the parent in that situation.”

Shannon High School senior Alivia Roberts recently addressed a Tupelo town hall meeting focused on reducing teenage pregnancy. Roberts, who spoke in her role as Miss Tupelo Outstanding Teen, said she does not remember much from her classroom sex-education lessons, which she took before the new law was passed.

She said schools should make those lessons more engaging.

“If the school is going to have a big impact in teaching sex education, there should be opportunities in the curriculum for students to engage in age-appropriate communication and hands-on classroom activities and outside activities that encourage critical thinking and feedback,” she said.

chris.kieffer@journalinc.com

  • Wade Walton

    As someone that has the WAIT program I am proud of how it educates teens and allows them to see the risks of sex outside the confines of marriage and the reward of keeping oneself pure

  • Winston Smith

    “We are going to advocate abstinence,” he said. “We are not going to
    enter into the realm of what you do if you decide to become sexually
    active. We feel that is a subject best handled by the parent. We don’t
    want to take the place of the parent in that situation.”

    Then expect to see nothing change.

    • FrereJocques

      Indeed. I am all for teaching abstinence to kids. Along with
      telling them of the possible negative consequences of illicit sex as well. But in the real
      world, we have to realize that some kids are going to have sex regardless of
      what they are told. That is why it is critical to ALSO tell them about ways to
      avoid the worst outcomes if they do. With modern technology, there is no reason
      why there should be any unwanted pregnancies. Modern birth control methods are
      numerous, safe, and effective. The only reason they are not widely accepted and
      used is that society still attaches a stigma to them. We need to use our
      educational system to promote the use of contraceptives, and end the societal
      and religious stigma of using them.

      Likewise, properly selected and used contraceptives can also
      help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The condom is the
      best method for this, and has the added benefit of being a contraceptive as
      well, although it should be supplemented in that role with other methods of
      birth control.

      Incidentally, Mr. Week’s statement saying that he chose the abstinence-only
      curriculum to “err on the side of caution” is one the biggest and lamest
      cop-outs I’ve ever heard.

  • Internut

    We have to provide real, useful information to our kids, not ideological doctrine. The position that it’s the parents’ responsibility sounds great in theory, but the truth is parents mostly ignore the issue beyond “don’t do it” and hope it will go away because they are uncomfortable with it. That’s been the approach for many decades now, and the numbers speak for themselves on how that turns out. Don’t expect to see much change in those numbers until we are ready to talk about the uncomfortable stuff. We owe our kids the truth.

  • Kevin

    Those kids in the photo look so miserable.

    As a society, we need to get past our collective awkwardness when talking about sex. Sex is not dirty and doing it does not make somebody impure. Sex is a purely natural human act. It’s best to wait until one is mature enough emotionally to handle it, however. Regardless of sex ed attempts to promote abstinence or if sex ed classes took a more real-world approach by demonstrating condom use, kids will still engage in unprotected sex as long as the “impure” stigma is attached to it. People, you need to get real and leave this puritanism at the door or else the problem of unwanted, teen pregnancies and STDs is never going away.

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  • pelyphin

    I don’t feel like sex ed programs are especially useful. Maybe the community I grew up in was somehow unusual – although I doubt it – but by middle school, if not much earlier (and certainly by high school, where it was a required course for some reason), we all knew what sex was, what it could lead to, the advisability of using protection, etc etc.

    Sex ed programs are not “failing” because they aren’t getting the facts across to kids. It’s not rocket science, and the kids know those things anyway. I think it’s kind of amusing that the article mentions the perceived need for condom demonstrations so prominently. Really, you don’t think they can figure that out? Or at least read the instructions on the box?

    You could say the programs are failing to prevent them from making illogical decisions in the heat of the moment – against the ever-so-basic facts of pregnancy and STD prevention they are already well aware of – but sex ed programs, along with almost any kind of intervention you can think of, will never be totally successful in that area.

    Kids are going to make stupid, irrational decisions. You can make the sex ed classes mandatory, every year – repeatedly drilling in what most if not all of them never needed a class to understand – and they’re still going to make the same mistakes.

    Unless I had a really different childhood, I can’t help but wonder about those who so passionately advocate sex ed as a solution, claiming kids just don’t know about pregnancy and STDs unless they’re taught about them in school.

    These things are not hard to grasp. Or are you actually claiming you and your peers had no idea what you were doing when puberty hit and some of you started fooling around?