Making Choices: Educators and Experts Explain How Leaders Can Re-Evaluate Their Districts' Sex Education Programs

Article excerpt

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, boys and girls in sixth grade in Osseo Area Schools, Minn., learned the term masturbation. All fourth-graders learned about anatomy in mixed-gender classes and the definition of sexual intercourse. And junior high students learned methods to avoid the risk of HIV infection.

It was a comprehensive family life curriculum, considered a prime model of a comprehensive human sexuality and family life education, according to B.J. Anderson, then the curriculum and instruction specialist for the district.

About 10 years ago, when district leaders were updating the health curriculum, including family life and sex education, a phone call from one parent changed everything.

She asked Anderson how parents were involved in the process. Prior to adopting new materials the curriculum, Anderson told her, district leaders sent surveys to a random stratified sample of parents, asking them how they felt about what the district was teaching students at every grade level up to that point.

The parent claimed she never received the survey and pressed further. "She felt that parents weren't able to make decisions," Anderson recalls. "They were getting information but they were not involved in an active process."

From there, the floodgates opened. She and several other parents immersed themselves in the process. And what has resulted, years later, is a curriculum that gave parents of students in eighth and 10th grades choices: Now, parents choose between an abstinence--until-marriage track or an abstinence-based plus comprehensive sex education program. Students in K-6th grade have the same curriculum, but parents can have their child removed from any class if they object to the lessons.

Anderson claims the choices might not be the best or only way other districts should go, but she says it works for Osseo Area Schools, where about 20 percent of the students are black, 13 percent are Asian and 5 percent are Hispanic.

"What I quickly learned in this particular case was that when we work with ... people who live with absolute belief systems, they cannot compromise," Anderson says.

It's a prevalent issue in schools. The debate is about abstinence only versus comprehensive sex education. Middle ground appears intangible.

"This has been going on much longer than the evolution debate and it's much more contentious," says James Bogden, project director of the Safe and Healthy School Project at National Association of State Boards of Education. "Sex education in the schools has been controversial for 30 years.... Everyone agrees we should teach abstinence. The question is, is it the only thing we teach? The division of opinion is so profound. There is no such thing as compromise. You teach abstinence only or abstinence plus. You can't fudge it. Often many districts don't teach it.

The Abstinence Clearinghouse, which promotes abstinence until marriage, agrees there are only two paths. If youths are taught to wait to have sex until marriage, they shouldn't be learning in school how to use condoms, says Leslee Unrue, Abstinence Clearinghouse president and founder. Students will get confused with the mixed messages, she adds.

The History of Sex Ed

Sexuality education has been controversial since it began in the early 1900s when it was more about hygiene, says Martha Kempner, director of public information at Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. In the early 1960s, the question became, Is sex education appropriate to teach in schools?

In the late 1980s, the AIDS epidemic threw a new twist in the debate now encouraging 34 states to teach students about HIV, STD and/or sex education. In the early 1990s, conservative and mainly Christian organizations focused on sex education, claiming the only way to prevent pregnancy and STDs is to stay abstinent until marriage, Kempner says. …