In a conference Thursday, they said a new state law allowing "abstinence-plus" education gives schools a chance to present more information and use programs that have been proven to work. Advocates urged school districts to move beyond just telling students not to have sex. They said that despite sometimes vocal opposition, a poll shows that most Mississippi parents support education beyond the abstinence-only approach that had been the state's policy.
Though Mississippi's teen pregnancy rate has fallen in recent years, it remains well above the national average. And Mississippi ranks high for most types of sexually transmitted diseases, with young people often the dominant group getting infected.
Under a law passed last year, every school district in the state has to choose a sex education curriculum to be implemented by next fall, deciding between abstinence-only or abstinence-plus approaches. Either way, the bill requires parental consent before students take part, as well as abstinence instruction and single-gender sex education classes.
A poll this fall of 3,600 parents with children in Mississippi public schools shows that 92 percent support sex education in schools, as long as it's age-appropriate. It even shows that more than 70 percent of parents support a demonstration of how to use a condom, something specifically banned by the new law.
That shows that school officials shouldn't be influenced by opponents to adopt abstinence-only approaches, said Jamie Bardwell, director of programs for the Women's Fund of Mississippi.
"The people who scream the loudest do not represent the majority of parents," she said.
Proponents of abstinence-plus say that teaching kids only to refrain from sex doesn't work.
"A lot of these programs have been proven ineffective," said Sanford Johnson of Mississippi First, which supports abstinence plus.
The state Board of Education has to approve all sex education lesson plans. The state Health Department is seeking the nod for six abstinence-plus lesson plans, each with six to 12 lessons. Because the health department has won federal funding to help implement the plans, most districts that choose them could get free teacher training and classroom materials.
Johnson said Mississippi First is lobbying for adoption of one of the Health Department curricula in 17 counties where data show severe problems with teen pregnancy and sexual disease.
"This is not just a Delta problem," Johnson said, noting that Chickasaw, George, Marion and Neshoba counties are also on the target list. Among counties with slightly lower priority rankings are Hinds, Forrest and Jones.
Johnson said there's enough federal money to provide training for 75 percent of districts. He estimated that more than 25 percent would choose abstinence only, meaning there could be enough federal money for every district that chooses abstinence-plus.
Others remain skeptical that sex education will do much to cut teen pregnancy and sexual diseases.
"I don't think that the problem with these kids is lack of sex education," outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour said Thursday. "I think they've got it down pat."
Sex education advocates disagree, though, saying teenagers are often lost in a sea of misinformation.
"We do know that they're having sex and we do know they're relying on their peers, who don't have a clue," said Marilyn Young, a Tunica County school board member.
Barbour and the Women's Fund share the goal of cutting births to teenage mothers, but disagree on how to get there. On Thursday, Barbour said he hoped the new law would be "positive." But in a speech Wednesday in Tupelo, the Republican governor said what's really needed is a regeneration of traditional values.
"I suggest the start is family; rebuilding the family with strong support from the church," he said. "Government has a key role to play. But the answers, the plan and the programs need to be developed by churches and families."