When I was a kid, sex ed consisted of some confusing diagrams of reproductive systems and lectures on pollination. That, plus having the boy next door explain human sexual relations to me using the neighborhood dogs as examples probably messed me up forever.
Things have changed since then. Or have they?
Until this past school year, North Carolina’s public school “health” education curriculum promoted abstinence-only sex education. But in 2010, the Healthy Youth Act was passed into law, the goal of which is to offer a more comprehensive reproductive health and safety program to seventh through ninth graders. The new curriculum still promotes abstinence as the best method for avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, but it also includes information about contraception, safe sex, and healthy relationships. Because we all know how well abstinence-only sex ed works. Right, Bristol Palin?
North Carolina has the 9th highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation — around 19,000 teenagers become pregnant each year. Thus, our state spends more than $300 million on teenage pregnancy annually. So giving teens as much knowledge as possible to help them avoid pregnancy clearly should be a primary goal — of the state, of educators, and of parents.
But here’s the rub. This is North Carolina. Talking about contraceptives in school can cause controversy. Despite the fact that this new sex ed program is supposed to be taught in schools, parents can fill out an opt-out form so their kids won’t hear the word “condom.” At least not from the mouth of a health educator or nurse. Instead they’ll hear it from their friends when they go back into the classroom and say, “What’d you learn?” And we all know second-hand information from 13-year-olds is accurate and comprehensive.
When my daughter was in fifth grade last year, we received an opt-out form from Asheville City Schools. I was thrilled that some “health” education was being covered in fifth grade. I think seventh grade is way too late to start talking to kids about healthy sexuality. Because close to 30 percent of U.S. teenagers between the ages of 13 and 16 are sexually active.
According to ACS’ health education policy, parents must be notified of their right “to withhold or withdraw consent for their child’s participation in all reproductive health and safety education instruction or in specific topics such as STDs, the effectiveness and safety of contraceptive methods and awareness of sexual assault and sexual abuse. Parents may also withhold consent to student participation in other separate instruction on the prevention of STDs, including HIV/AIDS, or the avoidance of out-of-wedlock pregnancy.” The on-line version of this policy was last updated in March 2010.
So while the Healthy Youth Act is a significant step forward, as long as parents can opt-out their kids from health education, its efficacy is limited. They can’t opt their kids out of history or social studies, both of which have some subjective subject matter.
Also, school administrators can choose to do the bare minimum — like talking about FDA approved contraceptives (as required) but only talking about their failure rates. In some cases, school administrators who are scared of opposition may do the minimum necessary for compliance.
Luckily, there are other options for our children to learn about healthy sexuality and contraceptives. One is the Our Whole Lives Sexuality Education Program, developed by the Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ churches. This values-based program offers age-appropriate information through six curricula for different age groups from kindergarten to adulthood. Despite being developed by religious organizations, the program contains no religious references or doctrine. It does, however, cover a variety of important health topics, from teaching skills to help kids avoid abuse to homosexuality to, yes, contraceptive options.
Kelley Wolfe, a local licensed sexologist, will be offering sex education classes for rising fourth-, fifth- and sixth- grade girls this summer using the Our Whole Lives curriculum. The classes will be Tuesdays and Thursdays in July from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Women’s Wellness and Education Center at 24 Arlington St. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Parents also can purchase OWL for use at home. Visit the UU church’s website at www.uua.org for information.
Everyone’s different, but, as a parent, I can’t imagine not wanting my children to have all the information and skill sets that they need to make informed decisions about their sexual health and relationships.