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Abstinence-Only Sex...

Abstinence-Only Sex Education: Not in My Backyard

Are kids who have sex before marriage six times more likely to kill themselves? Of course not, but an abstinence-only sex education curriculum called Choosing the Best presents this lie as fact to young people.

In DeKalb County, GA, one of five counties that make up metropolitan Atlanta, more than fifty parents are challenging Choosing the Best, the school district’s new abstinence-only sex education curriculum.

Lynn Cherry Grant, a member of the DeKalb County School Board, says that about three years ago the state of Georgia took sex education out of the science curriculum and put it in the physical health and fitness curriculum. At the middle-school level, says Grant, the nine-day Choosing the Best program is not a major focus of the health curriculum.

Abstinence-only sex education hasn’t always been the rule. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, when I attended school in DeKalb County, we had age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education beginning in fifth grade and running through high school. We received information about birth control, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and options for unintended pregnancy, including abortion—and this was before Roe v. Wade.

The only misinformation we received was when a substitute teacher told us that childbirth was so painful it was amazing that women lived through it. We all swore to be virgins the rest of our lives—until our regular teacher, Ms. Frazier, returned the next day and set the record straight.

Speaking Up

Shamrock Middle School parents came out in force at a recent presentation of the county’s new sex education program to question the validity of a curriculum that omits information about birth control, and to lobby for a more comprehensive program for their eighth graders.

Tanya Cassingham, a research coordinator in the microbiology/immunology department at Emory University, says, “As soon as I saw the article in the school newsletter about the presentation of this curriculum, I was determined to attend this meeting even if I was the only parent who would speak up.”

But Cassingham was not alone. Several members of the audience questioned Bruce Cook, founder and CEO of the company that produces Choosing the Best, about a curriculum that contains inaccuracies and sexual stereotypes.

School officials should have known they wouldn’t have it easy. DeKalb County is the home of prestigious Emory University as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a federal government health agency. Many of these parents are physicians, scientists, and researchers at these two highly regarded institutions. They were well prepared, and what they discovered about Choosing the Best would shock any parent who supports scientifically sound sex education.

Thickening the plot is the fact that the CDC, according to a parent who is an epidemiologist at the federal health agency, “is not happy about us” challenging the curriculum. This parent, who wishes to remain anonymous, says the abstinence-only curriculum is rife with inaccuracies, especially when it challenges the efficacy of condoms in preventing unintended pregnancy and STIs, including HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS.

“Most of the references in the literature are from religious and consumer literature—Christianity Today, different Web sites, Ladies’ Home Journal,” this parent says. “They aren’t scientific sites or peer-reviewed journals.”

The parent also says that information in the curriculum is distorted in subtle ways that can be difficult to uncover. For example, it’s true that condoms are less effective in preventing the herpes simplex virus (HSV) than they are in preventing other STIs, “but they took the lowest percentage of condom efficacy in any study for HSV and quoted that condom efficacy for everything. They find a paper from 1976 that says that condoms are 54 percent effective, but that was for HSV and not the opinion of the general literature out there.”

Stereotypes and Privacy Concerns

Parents are also concerned about the stereotyping of young women in the curriculum. Girls are presented as being unable to make decisions, riddled with emotions, and dependent on boys for decision making, says Sue Briss, a parent and PTA member

Perhaps most disturbing are the questions in the workbook students are asked to answer. It asks them to disclose “intimate personal and family information concerning drug and alcohol use,” says Briss. “These workbooks, which have the young person’s name on it, are then taken up by the teachers each day. There is definitely an issue with consent and confidentiality.”

Under the Radar

Bruce Cook, whose company created the program, is the chair of the Georgia Board of Human Resources, which oversees teen pregnancy prevention and family planning services. The Board of Human Resources can recommend curricula, but each school district makes the final decision about which program to use. The fact that Cook is on the board that makes recommendations about school curricula should have raised all kinds of red flags.

Lynn Cherry Grant, who represents Shamrock Middle School, says that Choosing the Best was never presented to the DeKalb County School Board for approval. Parents were shocked when they found out.

According to Tanya Cassingham, Cook talked directly to Tom Davis, the principal of Shamrock, about using the program at his school. "Tom said he wanted to run it by our health education instructor," she says, "but also asked if it was county-approved, and two members of the county’s board of education e-mailed him and said it had been approved. Someone was doing some real dirty dancing behind everyone’s back."

A Comprehensive Approach

The state of Georgia requires that schools teach sexuality education, which includes information on abstinence, conception, HIV, STIs, and the legal consequences of pregnancy, says Leola Reis, vice president of communications, education, and outreach, at Planned Parenthood of Georgia, who has been assisting the Shamrock parents. “It’s a good law, but not great,” she says. “And though nothing beyond these topics is required, discussions on condoms and birth control methods are permitted.”

The parents want a comprehensive program in the schools that teaches both abstinence and birth control. “We want a program that gives kids a bigger picture,” says the epidemiologist from the CDC, “so they don’t only learn that they can get pregnant or STIs, but they also learn how to negotiate around these things—how to communicate with one another about these issues.”

Parents Win

In response to parents’ concerns, Choosing the Best was pulled from all DeKalb County schools. Cook attempted to get it back, but without success. In late March of this year, Shamrock students brought a letter home that stated the following:

“Staff and Board members have reviewed the materials. The Choosing the Best program will not be used for instruction of sex education in DeKalb County Schools. We will continue to teach the QCC’s and new Georgia Performance Standards in the area of sex education, utilizing approved materials and the courses provided through Fernbank Science Center.”

Fernbank Science Center is a freestanding, school-run facility that offers several comprehensive classes on sex education.

The battle may be over in DeKalb County, GA, but it rages on in other schools across the country. The federal government continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into ideologically driven abstinence-only programs that are unproven, ignoring the widespread support for comprehensive sex education.

But parents don’t have to stand for it.

Reis suggests that parents who are concerned about the curriculum in their schools pool their resources. “There’s a lot of great information and a lot of connections that parents have when they come together,” she says. “Then head to the next PTA meeting and, if need be, your school board, and bring up your concerns. The school board works for you, so if you are not happy with what is presented, say something.”

By Nancy Hatch Woodward

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