Medical-accuracy bill at center of sex-ed skirmish
In a cooking class at Mount Rainier High School in Des Moines one afternoon last week, teacher Deborah Strayer tied on an apron custom-designed by some of her 10th-grade students. Printed on the white cloth was a cartoon of a baby's bottle, ringed by the words, "K'no'w the formula? Abstinence is the solution!"
The students in Strayer's family health course produced aprons, pencils and other paraphernalia under a project called Teen Aware, funded with state and federal dollars. Teen Aware touts sexual abstinence until marriage and directs students to develop a promotional campaign to publicize what the program teaches.
"They just pretty much got out to us, 'Don't have sex: It causes a big problem in your life,' " said Teen Aware alum Jayme Harris, 16. "What we learned every day is the consequences of having sex."
Among those consequences, Harris said, are pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases -- and more.
Teen Aware is the kind of program President Bush pledged to pump up during his 2000 campaign, when he called for spending as much federal money on abstinence education as on contraceptive medical services for teens. His 2003 budget proposal would have done just that, although Congress trimmed the request while approving some of the increase he sought.
Teenagers, sex and public schools make for a minefield of policy and politics, issues and emotions. It's a landscape signposted with code words and shadowed by bigger agendas, a battleground of the culture wars on which school administrators tread gingerly.
The latest skirmish in Washington state centers on a seemingly innocuous bill by state Rep. Shay Schual-Berke, D-Normandy Park, that would require medically accurate information in sex education courses. The bill passed the House Friday on a 52-44 vote and now goes to the Senate.
"Most parents trust their schools, and they don't have the faintest idea that the state has no minimum requirement, no standard curriculum to ensure that any sexuality education be medically accurate or factual," Schual-Berke said. "How can anybody oppose wanting to give factual and accurate information to students?"
But propositions like hers are a red flag for national groups such as the Abstinence Clearinghouse, which declares as its mission "to promote the appreciation for and practice of sexual abstinence (purity) until marriage."
Calling medical accuracy "the stealth weapon of sex education," it links its Web site (www.abstinence.net) to a document prepared by Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian organization, that attacks Planned Parenthood and its "ideological cronies" for promoting bills like Schual-Berke's in legislatures across the country.
To be sure, representatives of Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League requested the medical-accuracy bill, Schual-Berke said. And she acknowledged that the proposal is partly a reaction to the "abstinence-only" movement.
"Real sex education is far more than just saying no," Schual-Berke said.
Apart from any disputes over morals and lifestyles, the bill seeks to correct real abuses, she said.
University of Washington sophomore Lindsay Scola testified on behalf of the Schual-Berke bill at a hearing last month. A 2001 graduate of Skyline High School in Sammamish, she said the sex education in her required health class consisted mainly of presentations by two pro-abstinence speakers: a volunteer from Sexuality, Health, And Relationship Education, a non-profit organization active since 1987 in area schools; and Brad Henning, a paid speaker whose says his own non-profit venture has pitched chastity to more than 60,000 students in 10 states in the past nine years.
"We were taught that condoms don't work, which is a grossly inaccurate statement, and that if you have an abortion, you either die or become sterile, which is also a grossly inaccurate statement," Scola, a member of the board of the state NARAL branch, said in a recent interview.
"If this is the only information you're getting, you take it as the truth," Scola said. "I just feel students were done a flat-out injustice because they were being lied to and they were given information that was potentially dangerous and life-threatening."
Henning said it's Scola who is not telling the truth. "I would never say the things she's quoted me as saying," he said.
SHARE Executive Director Kathy Taylor, who testified against the bill, also denies Scola's statements.
The organization's speakers do focus on their abstinence-until-marriage message in their 90-minute presentations, Taylor said. But in many cases, she said, they provide just a piece of a "comprehensive" sex-education curriculum that includes information about birth control and safe sex.
"Kids have access to a ton of information today," Taylor said. "That's not a problem for them. What I think they don't get is people and adults raising the bar for them when it comes to sexuality -- giving them something to aim for -- rather than telling them, 'We know you're going to have sex anyway, so here's how.' "
The pendulum may be swinging Taylor's way. According to a 1999 nationwide study, 23 percent of secondary-
school teachers said they discussed only abstinence as a means to avoid pregnancy, up from 2 percent 10 years before.
The abstinence-only movement got a big boost from the federal government in 1996, when conservative Republicans in Congress amended the Welfare Reform Act to allocate $50 million a year for promotion of premarital chastity; in the previous 15 years, federal support for the cause had totaled $60 million. Other federal appropriations have increased the total.
Washington state has received $739,000 a year under the 1996 formula. The Legislature has funneled $200,000 of that to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and provided $195,000 in state matching money. OSPI distributes the $395,000 to support Teen Aware in selected school districts.
Teen Aware is just part of the sex-ed curriculum in the required health class Strayer teaches at Mount Rainier High. Contraception is included, too, she said, reciting the Highline School District's mantra about presenting birth-control information with reference to a "mutually monogamous relationship, as in the context of marriage."
"Kids are sexually active," Strayer said. "You've got your head in the sand if you think you're just going to tell kids, 'No.' "
The Teen Aware money is the only current direct federal support for sex education in Washington state. (In a budget-cutting move unrelated to the debate over the issue, Gov. Gary Locke has proposed eliminating the state Teen Aware funding.) President Bush's increase for abstinence advocacy is earmarked largely for community-based organizations such as SHARE, which has applied for a slice of the money, Taylor said.
State law directs public schools to provide two hours a year of instruction on HIV/AIDS prevention in grades five through 12; there's no other sex education requirement. In Seattle and its suburbs, public high schools typically provide some sex education to their students, often in a required health course. And while abstinence advocacy is part of the curriculum, most of the courses seem to fit the comprehensive model.
The sex-ed content varies from school district to school district, and even from teacher to teacher. The issue can be a touchy one: In some cases, administrators in the school district's central office describe one approach, while classroom teachers say they take a different tack.
In the Kent School District, for example, central-office administrators disclaim the "abstinence-only" label, while at the same time saying that students who ask about contraception are referred to their parents.
"What we tell students is the only 100 percent way to be safe is abstinence," communications director Becky Hanks said.
But teachers in Kentwood High School's family health course give students basic information about birth-control methods, said Lynette Hansen, chairwoman of the school's department of family and consumer science. Planned Parenthood provides some of the materials for the course, which is one of two alternative health courses students must complete for graduation. (The other course, offered through the physical education department, includes a similar sex-ed curriculum, Hansen said.)
The curriculum is cleared with Kentwood High administrators and a community advisory panel, Hansen said, and parents are notified by letter of the course content in advance. Presentations by SHARE also may be part of the course.
"We try to offer a balance," Hansen said.
Phyllis Runyon, curriculum specialist for the Issaquah School District, describes the district's sex-ed philosophy as "abstinence-only." But Runyon acknowledges that "it gets wishy-washy" when teachers discuss condoms in terms of forestalling infection by sexually transmitted diseases.
And it can get wishy-washier still.
Sex-ed teacher Delores Leber believes strongly in abstinence until marriage; indeed, she has "taken a lot of heat" at Liberty High School in Renton for her emphasis on abstinence in her health course, according to fellow Liberty teacher Brenda Briney. Leber's students have participated in Teen Aware and have attended presentations by abstinence advocate Henning.
But when Leber arrived at Liberty three years ago, she said, the school's previous sex-ed teacher bequeathed her a "toy box": a carton full of contraceptive devices, with information about how they work, and how well.
Leber said her supervisors have made it clear they expect her to include information about contraception in her course. She consulted her conscience and ultimately decided to open the toy box for her students.
"This is the last health class they will ever have in high school -- maybe in their lives," she said. So along with abstinence advocacy, she gives her students information about birth control.
"I want the message to be, 'This is a personal, individual choice,' " Leber said.
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