Sexuality Education Policy Update
Arizona, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, New Mexico, Washington State, West Virginia, and the U.S. House of Representatives are all considering bills that would require medical accuracy in sexuality education programs.
Because some abstinence-only programs have provided information to young people that is medically inaccurate (such as inflated failure rates of contraceptive devices), a trend of attempting to pass laws that require medically accurate sexuality education programs is emerging.
Most of these bills define "medically accurate" as: (1) supported by research conducted in compliance with accepted scientific methods; (2) recognized as accurate and objective by leading professional organizations and agencies with relevant expertise; and (3) published in peer-reviewed journals, if appropriate. Some also recognize groups and government agencies such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as references for medical accuracy.
Arizona's Senate Bill 1142, introduced on January 28, passed the Senate Education Committee on February 24. While state law currently mandates medically accurate sexuality education, it does not provide guidance on what it means. This bill would accomplish that goal and strengthen current law by spelling out requirements. Last year, Arizona made similar attempts to strengthen its medical accuracy requirement but was unsuccessful.
Two bills were introduced in Hawaii's legislature that would require recipients of state funding for sexuality education to provide medically accurate, age-appropriate information about both abstinence and contraception. House Bill 136, introduced on January 17, has unanimously passed two committees and is now in a third. The Senate version, Senate Bill 876, is in committee.
Illinois' Senate Bill 99, introduced on January 29, would amend the state's current Education Code to require that all sexuality education courses be comprehensive and medically accurate, and include instruction on the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases as well as HIV/AIDS. The new language would place an emphasis on the effectiveness of abstinence but would not include the phrase "abstinence is the expected norm." It would also omit language promoting heterosexual marriage.
Indiana's House Bill 1862, introduced on January 23, would require medically accurate information in all health, AIDS, HIV, or abstinence education programs that are required by statute. The bill does not strike out current abstinence or marriage promotion language from the statutes and leaves intact the following three requirements: 1) that the program teach abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard for all school age children; 2) that the program include that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems; and 3) that the program include that the best way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and other associated health problems is to establish a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage. Both bills are in committee.
New Mexico's Health and Human Development Education Act (House Bill 554) was introduced on February 5 and passed on February 25 by a vote on 61 to 2. The bill is now in the Senate Committee on Education. The proposed legislation would require the state's Department of Education to create guidelines for schools on age-appropriate health and human development courses for grades kindergarten through 12. While schools are currently required to provide health education, such instruction may be taught as a separate class or as part of the curriculum for other subjects. This legislation outlines new and age-cohort specific guidelines for kindergarten through grade four, grades five through eight, and grades nine through 12.
Bills requiring medically accurate sexuality education were also introduced in Washington State's House and Senate. House Bill 1178, introduced on January 20, and Senate Bill 5314, introduced on January 22, would require medically accurate sexuality education courses funded by the state. Local school boards currently decide whether to offer sexuality education.
Through amendments, the initial House bill now also requires that courses teach abstinence as the most effective way to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Further, it stipulates that any discussion of success or failure rates, among other topics, must use medically accurate information. The Senate bill requires, as did the House bill before amendment, that all sexuality education be medically accurate. Finally, there are two pending House bill amendments. One states that nothing in the law precludes school districts from providing abstinence-only programs. The other authorizes school districts to choose their own sexuality education courses. The House bill has passed one committee and is currently in another. The Senate bill is in committee.
West Virginia's House Bill 2907, the Responsible Sexuality Education in Schools Act, was introduced on February 7 and referred to committee, where it currently sits. In its findings, the bill recognizes that comprehensive sexuality education-education that discusses abstinence and contraception-helps to "delay the onset of sexual activity, reduce the frequency of sex, and reduce the number of sex partners." It also states that "abstinence-only programs in schools do not delay the initiation of sex or reduce its frequency."
On the federal level, the Medically Accurate Sex Education bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on February 13 by U.S. Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). This bill, H.R. 802, would prohibit any elementary or secondary school receiving federal funds to provide information that is not medically accurate in terms of human development or sexual health. The bill was referred to the Education and Workforce Committee. Its cosponsors include champions of a comprehensive approach to sexuality education such as Democratic Representatives Woolsey, Capps, and Waxmen, all from the state of California.
For more information about proposed legislation on sexuality education, click here.
A San Francisco area school district and a Maryland county school district are both reviewing their sexuality education curricula in response to community requests and complaints.
In San Francisco, a parent became concerned about the content of her 12-year-old son's abstinence-only-until-marriage class when he told her that seaweed is inserted into a woman's cervix before an abortion. Her concern increased when she saw his course materials and noticed that he had written "killing a baby" as a disadvantage of abortion.
The parent then discovered that the mission of the group providing the instruction, First Resort, is to reduce abortion in the San Francisco Bay area. She began pressuring the Mt. Diablo Unified School District to review the program. "What I send my kids to school for is to get an education," the parent said. "My expectation is that education is going to be based on educationally sound, research-based, age-appropriate information. I don't expect a political agenda in school," she continued.
First Resort uses the CryBabies curriculum in four middle schools in the Mt. Diablo District and in approximately 20 other schools throughout the Bay area.
In recent years, First Resort claims to have moved away from its stated mission. A First Resort employee who teaches the parent's son stated that "we are a Christian organization but not an antiabortion organization." She said that she discusses abortion for approximately an hour during the program but does not talk in depth about preventing pregnancy. "You can only cover so much. This is an abstinence program," the instructor said.
The school district is currently reviewing the curriculum. Thus far, there are no plans to cancel the district's contract with First Resort.
California law requires that sexuality education, when it is taught, must be medically accurate, objective, and stress abstinence. California is the only state that does not accept the federal government's Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage funding. The state does, however, get some federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funding through the Special Projects of Regional and National Significance-Community Based Abstinence Education (SPRANS-CBAE) grant program. The SPRANS-CBAE program is the strictest of any of the federal government's abstinence-only-until-marriage funding streams because funded programs must adhere to each of the points in the eight-point definition of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs created by 1996's welfare reform law.
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In Hartford County, MD, the Board of Education is updating the county's sexuality education curriculum after the Citizen Advisory Committee on Family Life Education found that the current curriculum is significantly behind most of Maryland's other counties in terms of its discussion of HIV/AIDS, STDs, and human sexuality. The county's curriculum has not been updated since 1983, prior to widespread knowledge and understanding of HIV/AIDS.
The committee, which consists of teachers, parents, and administrators, conducted interviews with teachers and administrators in 22 of the state's 24 counties. According to Joan Hayden, a member of the committee and a teacher at Bel Air High School, Hartford County "is the only county that has not included information about STDs-except for HIV/AIDS-or teen pregnancy in the middle school curriculum."
Under the old guidelines, when middle school teachers were asked questions about STDs and teen pregnancy prevention, they could not answer the question or refer the student to another source. According to Ms. Hayden, "We've really had our hands tied. We haven't been able to find any written documents that said this wouldn't be taught. It just never has been."
At a hearing on February 10, seven community members, including parents, clergy, and students, spoke in support of the changes. Ian Hull, a senior at a local high school and the president of the Hartford County Regional Association of Student Councils, stated that 150 student leaders had voiced 100 percent approval of the changes and that they had found it "shocking" that no changes had been made to the curriculum since before all the students in the organization were born. Only one community member, a woman who graduated from a local high school 21 years ago, spoke against the curriculum. She felt that the information should be discussed by parents or at church.
The Citizens Advisory Committee adopted four motions. Among them were updating the curriculum to include information on HIV/AIDS, STDs, teen pregnancy, and sexuality; organizing parent workshops on STDs; establishing a detailed curriculum for approval by March 2004; and starting the curriculum in the eighth grade rather than in high school.
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This article was provided by Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.