Tending to parent needs when it comes to sex ed

Tending to parent needs when it comes to sex ed

(N.C.) Deciding how much information is needed to properly prepare pre-teens for parenthood has been an age-old challenge – it’s a dilemma school officials have been challenged with for decades.

The solution, at least at one North Carolina school district, has been to offer parents a choice in sex education.

One course, My Life, is a sexual risk avoidance course that stresses abstinence-until-marriage. The other, Stepping Stones, offers a more comprehensive version of sex education that includes information on other forms of pregnancy and STD prevention.

“There will always be people who feel strongly one way or another about what type of program should be taught in schools,” said Jayne Emma, New Hanover County Schools’ My Life teacher.

“(But) parents in our district are given the opportunity to choose which type of reproductive health and safety education they feel best fits their family's values or beliefs.”

Although a majority of states – 33 and the District of Columbia – require that students receive instruction about HIV/AIDS, local school boards are often left to decide what more, if anything, should be covered. Rarely is a decision easily reached.

In Utah, a bill was signed last month allowing parents to opt their child out of required human sexuality instruction, while in Alaska a similar bill would also ban speakers or instructors from outside agencies such as Planned Parenthood from presenting in schools.

On the flip side, one Nebraska school board has been discussing possible changes to its sex education curriculum, finding support from many parents who seem to prefer a more comprehensive approach. In California, one school board, after much heated debate, voted earlier this month to update its guidelines on sex education and HIV/AIDS prevention while maintaining its partnership with Planned Parenthood as a partner in instruction.

There is a good amount of overlap in the curriculum of the two separate North Carolina programs, geared for students in grades 6-8. Both cover topics including male and female reproductive systems, physical changes of adolescence, healthy relationships, childbirth and HIV/AIDS. However, the Stepping Stones program also covers contraception in seventh and eighth grades.

Supporters of comprehensive sex education say that even when contraception is discussed in programs such as My Life, it is done so with a clear bias.

“Often times those programs really use shame and fear tactics,” said Diana Rhodes, director of policy at Advocates for Youth, who said that such information is provided through failure rates.

“We believe that young people have the right to lead healthy lives, and with that, we should be teaching young people how to make healthy decisions about sex and relationships rather than simply telling them not to have sex,” Rhodes said.

Those in favor of programs such as My Life disagree, and say that sexual-risk avoidance programs do paint a more realistic picture of sexual health.

“We simply discuss with kids the realistic limitations of a condoms and birth control,” said Mary Anne Mosack, national director of state initiatives for the National Abstinence Education Association. “We base that on independent polling which shows that parents are concerned that their children often have a false sense of security that if they use a condom or use any kind of birth control that they are completely safe – but that is not medically accurate, there is always risk.”

“We teach our entire sexual-risk avoidance message in the context of what provides youth with an optimal health outcome,” Mosack said. “It isn’t…seven straight days saying ‘don’t do it.’”

Yet opponents such as Rhodes argue that sexual risk avoidance programs not only “omit controversial topics such as contraception, masturbation, sexual orientation and gender expression,” but also, “sensor life-saving information by promoting ignorance.”

“We find these programs harmful, unethical and stigmatizing of young people, and really think that they deserve better,” Rhodes said.

In other traditionally conservative states, including Alaska and Utah, it is the controversial subjects – such as abortion or sexual orientation – that continue to fuel the debate over sex education curriculum.

A bill which would have eliminated classroom discussion on contraceptives, intercourse and homosexuality in sex education was ultimately vetoed in Utah in 2012 by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert. The “opt-in” legislation signed last month will make it easier for parents to choose what is best for their child, bill sponsor Rep. Brad Dee, R-Ogden, told the Deseret Morning News.

In Alaska, which has consistently had the highest or second-highest rate of chlamydia for nearly 15 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opponents of the bill there have said its only intention is to attack Planned Parenthood.

The bill would specifically prohibit schools from allowing an "abortion services provider" to provide course materials or instruction regarding sexuality or STDs, even if approved by the local school board.

In North Carolina, giving parents an option between multiple programs for nearly 22 years seems to have not only resulted in a peaceful compromise, but also benefits to students.

Pregnancy rates in the district were approximately 1.3 percent lower than in the rest of the state, according to 2013 statistics from the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina.

In 2013-14, 77 percent of students in grades 6-8 in New Hanover County Schools participated in the district’s sex education program, with 23 percent choosing to opt out. Of those, 66 percent took part in "Stepping Stones."