Sex education in schools: Is abstinence enough?

By Jessica Bakeman/The Clarion-Ledger

JACKSON – Parents of children enrolled in the Rankin County School District most likely will get a permission form in the mail at the start of the academic year asking whether they want their children taught sex education.

That district’s school board voted April 11 to adopt the abstinence-only policy and seventh- and eighth-graders will be taught that.

The permission slip will be included with other usual forms, like media releases, said Heather Burch, director of curriculum and instruction.

It goes to the heart of a key question regarding a 2011 law that will require all Mississippi school districts to decide by the end of June whether they’ll implement an “abstinence-only” or “abstinence-plus” sex education curriculum.

Under the law, schools must give parents no less than one week’s notice that a sex education program will be presented in the classroom or during an assembly. Parents must then opt in.

Jackson’s metro area school districts are split on which curriculum to adopt. Like the Rankin County district, two other suburban districts have opted for abstinence-only, while three other districts have voted or are leaning toward abstinence-plus.

Officials in Pearl, where abstinence-only sex education will be taught, have not yet decided which grade level will receive the instruction, but they’re leaning toward seventh, during which science teachers can integrate it with lessons on genetics and heredity, said Assistant Superintendent Tammy Wilkinson.

They will send notices home with the students about upcoming sex education programs. Wilkinson said teachers will follow up with parents who don’t return the permission slips, most likely with phone calls.

“We’re going to have to get one back from every child either way,” she said. “The ones that we don’t get permission for, they’ll get separated out.”

The law states that abstinence-only should remain the “standard” by which sex education is taught in Mississippi schools. Burch said Rankin County chose abstinence-only because it gives the district more control.

Abstinence-only requires the teaching of “some or all” sex education topics listed in the legislation, while abstinence-plus requires all topics to be covered.

Some of those topics include how to reject unwanted sexual advances, the role alcohol and drugs play in those advances and state law regarding forcible or statutory rape and other sex crimes.

“We decided that once we receive the curriculum, if there was something in there that we didn’t feel like needed to be taught, we would have that flexibility,” Burch said.

Fifth- and seventh-graders will get abstinence-only sex education in Madison County. A majority of parents, who responded to the school district’s request for input during the past month, said they preferred that curriculum.

“We looked at what other districts are doing, and we felt like at this age the abstinence-only program in fifth and seventh grades would be best for our community,” Assistant Superintendent Charlotte Seals said.

Like Pearl, Seals said the district will alert parents of upcoming instruction by sending notes home with students. She said she couldn’t predict how that would affect participation.

The three Hinds County districts all likely will have abstinence-plus curriculum.

While the Jackson Public Schools board has yet to vote on the issue, a proposal was presented at the May meeting supporting abstinence-plus.

Interim Superintendent Jayne Sargent wouldn’t elaborate on the choice, only to say the schools will abide by the result of the board’s June 19 vote.

JPS officials have not decided at which grade level students will receive this information.

John Neal, director of community relations for the Hinds County School District, said the school board voted Jan. 12 to adopt abstinence-plus. It will taught to seventh-graders.

District employees already have used several methods of notifying parents, including holding presentations in February and April and sending a letter home this school year.

The Clinton School District board will vote June 12 to adopt an abstinence-plus program, Superintendent Phillip Burchfield said.

The program will be taught in the ninth-grade health curriculum. He said a group of parents were polled on which program they would prefer.

“The findings were that parents of younger children supported abstinence-plus and parents at the upper grades supported abstinence-only,” Burchfield said. “As a district, we felt that we needed to provide more information to our students than less.

“But providing information is neither encouraging nor condoning unhealthy choices that have lifelong consequences,” he said.

Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, House Education Committee chairman when the law was passed, said he’s concerned that, with an opt-in program, parents might not get the message and, in turn, kids won’t, either.

“It was the only way we could get it passed,” he said, adding the formerly Democrat-dominated House had passed the bill with an opt-out provision, but the Republican majority in the Senate wouldn’t approve that.

“Kids often won’t even bring home their report cards much less bring home something like that,” Brown said.

“How we are going to make sure that our parents know what their options are?” asked Rep. Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson, who sponsored the bill in 2011. “Citizens are going to have to be real good about getting the word out.”

The crux of both programs is this: The only way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sex until marriage and remain faithful within it.

Contentious debate over the issue is dominated by two contradicting arguments:

.Abstinence is the only effective way to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

.Abstinence-only education is clearly not effective.

Clarke points to the state’s high rates of teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS as evidence to move away from abstinence-only programs, the reason she said she championed the bill.

Although she’d prefer all districts choose abstinence-plus, she said: “We’ll see how it goes and hope and pray that it does help.”

State Health Officer Dr. Mary Currier said statistical evidence shows adolescents are having sex. A 2009 state Department of Health survey of middle and high school students shows 61 percent of adolescents have had sexual intercourse, compared with 46 percent nationally. According to the same survey, 24 percent of Mississippi students have had four or more sexual partners.

“We all want our kids to abstain until they’re married,” Currier said, “but I have a hard time abandoning those kids that are already having sex and not telling them how to protect themselves.”

Abstinence-only vs. abstinence-plus
JACKSON — With abstinence-only sex education, school districts may teach some or all of the following sex education curriculum components.

With abstinence-plus sex education, school districts must teach all of the following sex education curriculum components.

Sex education curriculum components outlined by a new state law include the teaching of:

.The social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity and the likely negative psychological and physical effects of not abstaining.

.The harmful consequences to the child, the child’s parents and society that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to produce, including the health, educational, financial and other difficulties the child and his or her parents are likely to face, as well as the inappropriateness of the social and economic burden placed on others.

.That unwanted sexual advances are irresponsible, how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances.

.That abstinence from sexual activity before marriage, and fidelity within marriage, is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and related health problems.

.The current state law related to sexual conduct, including forcible rape, statutory rape, paternity establishment, child support and homosexual activity.

.That a mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the only appropriate setting for sexual intercourse.

Abstinence-only sex education may include the teaching of:

.A discussion on condoms or contraceptives, but only if that discussion includes a factual presentation of the risks and failure rates of those contraceptives.

Abstinence-plus sex education must also include the teaching of:

.Any other age- and grade-appropriate material such as contraceptives – excluding instruction and demonstrations on the application and use of condoms.

.The nature, cause and effects of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, along with a factual presentation of the risks and failure rates.

Neither program allows the teaching of:

.Instruction or demonstrations on the use of condoms.

.That abortion can be used to prevent the birth of a baby.

Regardless of the program chosen, schools must:

.Secure consent of parents for the inclusion of their children in sex education.

.Provide age-appropriate, evidenced-based and medically accurate information.

.Separate boys and girls into different classes when sex education is taught.

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Online:

http://www.healthyschoolsms.org