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|May 14-20, 2009
No sex or safe sex?
Abstinence-only sex education comes under scrutiny
By Tara Malone
The birds and the bees may be universal, but what schoolchildren learn about their sexuality is not. And it may again be up for debate.
This spring, Congress will consider whether to curtail its support of abstinence-only lessons. That, coupled with a recent uptick in U.S. teen pregnancies and new research that suggests abstinence-only programs are not as effective as more sweeping programs at changing behavior, may augur a shift in what schools teach about sex.
The federal investment in abstinence-only education spiked 74 percent under President George Bush to total $176 million annually.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has said he supports adding other forms of contraception to the lessons as part of an “age-appropriate, medically accurate program” to reduce teen pregnancies. Congress cut $14 million from abstinence education programs last month.
The tenor of the discussions concerns Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association.
“If federal funding for abstinence education were to go away... the breadth of the approach will be hindered,” Huber said. “We’re hoping that’s not the case, but so many communities and states are in an economic downturn.”
Sex education is not required in Illinois schools, but state law says that if it is taught, it must emphasize abstinence. The particulars fall to local school boards, who have created a patchwork of policies.
Chicago and Urbana school boards have approved comprehensive policies that cover everything from healthy relationships to using condoms and other contraceptives that guard against sexually transmitted diseases. Middle schools from Gurnee to Schaumburg teach about abstinence and human development, but draw the line at family planning.
Joliet Central High School teacher Susan Cailteux is reminded of how varied the sex education curriculum is at the elementary and middle school level every time she begins a unit with a 25-point quiz on the reproductive system.
“I’ll get kids with a 5. They don’t even get the uterus right,” said Cailteux, who teaches high school sophomores about both abstinence and contraception. “It’s very frustrating at times because you expect them to know the basics, but the basics have not been taught.”
Sophomore Tim Nemec, 16, of Joliet acknowledged that he never learned much about reproduction or the risk of infections until he took the health course required of all sophomores at Joliet Central. After that, he noticed a shift in some classmates’ attitudes.
“There were some kids who went in like, ‘I don’t care. I’ll do what I want,’ “ Nemec said. “But after a while, they were sort of like, ‘Wow, I don’t know if this person is clean or not,’ or, ‘I could actually get someone pregnant.’ “
Abstinence-only advocates contend that, just as adults drill teens not to drink and drive, educators should teach them to avoid risk by maintaining celibacy until marriage. Those who favor a more comprehensive approach say leaving out other forms of contraception doesn’t jibe with reality.
Nearly two-thirds of high school seniors said they have had sexual intercourse, and 22 percent said they had been with at least four partners, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year. Meanwhile, a federal report in 2007 found that abstinence programs had little effect on changing teen behavior, and teen pregnancies climbed for the second year.
“We have junior high school principals calling us because they have five kids who are pregnant. They care deeply about students, but they don’t know what to do,” said Kathleen Burke, chief executive officer of the Robert Crown Center for Health Education.
The nonprofit center teaches 120,000 students annually at locations in Hinsdale, Chicago and Aurora. Schools bring students to the center for sex education lessons taught by experts and tailored to the students’ age group in addition to, or instead of, lessons at school. All topics are taught, but not to all age groups.
Eighth-graders from Gurrie Middle School in La Grange settled down this month for a lesson in the risks and responsibilities of sex.
Physician David Bedney walked them through the subject — eliciting giggles and groans of “ew, gross!” — during a two-hour class at the Hinsdale center.
He covered the science of reproduction, adolescent development and some pregnancy myths: Yes, girls can conceive even if they have intercourse only one time; no, early withdrawal does not constitute safe sex; and please, if you think you might become sexually active, seek the advice of your parents or teachers, not a peer who “saw something on MTV.”
Bedney then delivered his central message: “I’m not here to tell you what to do. I’m here to give you information. I’m here to tell you, medically speaking, there is only one way to avoid pregnancy, and that’s abstinence. There are forms of contraception that may reduce the risk, but that’s different.”
Regardless of what Congress decides on funding, Superintendent Jay Sabatino of Community High School District 117 in Lake Villa expects abstinence will continue as the backbone of sex ed classes, out of practicality more than politics. Preventing teen pregnancies isn’t as simple as teaching about birth control, he said. It also requires discussions about will power, maturity and “what it means to be a responsible 13-year-old.”
“There’s always a balancing act, but you’ve got to start from someplace,” Sabatino said.
Still, school officials try to make their policies reflect the standards of the local community. Many said neighbors and parents offer a more immediate barometer of what’s acceptable than policymakers in Washington.
In Gurnee, Woodland School District 50, board member Terry Hall last month questioned the quality of the district’s abstinence-based instruction in response to a parent complaint. The north suburban district adopted the program two years ago, and other board members cautioned against changing course.
“I approved the curriculum that was best for our community,” said board member Carla Little, a virologist and mother of four. “As politics change, we would still filter that through what’s best for this community.”
(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune. Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/
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