State agenda stirs controversy in sex ed.

By Åsa Björklund
Staff Writer

The recent education budget cuts in Arizona will make it harder for teachers to improve sex education. The state already ranks third highest in the nation for teen-pregnancy rates; critics say Arizona’s abstinence-only sex education has failed.

Most people agree that sex education is needed to prevent teen pregnancies. What should be taught in such classes, however, stirs up a major debate. A line can be drawn between supporters of abstinence-only education (until marriage) and supporters of comprehensive sex education. The latter promote abstinence but also include information on contraceptive methods, STIs and HIV.

“The idea of abstinence until marriage is not realistic. What happens if you don’t meet the right person? What if you’re homosexual and can’t get married?” asked Ron Harvey, Dean of Students at Kestrel High School.

The budget cuts in education will force schools to pull out anything extraneous, and initiatives like comprehensive sex education will fall under that category, Harvey explained.

The U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rates in the industrialized world. Besides the difficulties that unwanted pregnancies can cause for teenagers, they also lead to increased costs in health care, welfare, foster care, and incarceration. In 2004, teen childbearing in Arizona cost taxpayers at least $252 million, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Arizona does not have a law that requires schools to teach sex education or STI and HIV education. However, Arizona law requires that a school choosing to teach sex education must have age-appropriate instruction that stresses abstinence. Furthermore, if a school chooses to teach HIV education, such instruction must be medically accurate, but cannot promote a “homosexual lifestyle,” portray “homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style,” or “suggest that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.”

Each school district decides the content of sex education. The Prescott Unified School District (PUSD) offers health and sex education to students in grades five through 12. Although the education includes some information about contraceptives and HIV/AIDS awareness, the primary focus is on the concept of abstinence until marriage. A committee of teachers, parents, and community members decided on this approach prior to approval of the PUSD board. Hence, the program reflects the values of people in Prescott, according to Heidi Atkinson, curriculum director at PUSD.

“The community is a very traditional community,” she said. “Just the community make-up is probably more traditional than you’d find in other places.” Through an agreement with PUSD, the North Star Youth Partnership (NSYP) teaches all sexual education classes in the school district, except for ninth grade. NSYP is a program of the Catholic Charities Community Services. When asked about what information is provided on contraceptive use, NSYP Program director Diane DeLong, supported the state’s opinion on stressing abstinence, “There is a myth that condoms equal ‘safe sex’ and protect them from STDs and pregnancy. Teens must understand that condoms have the highest failure rate of any birth control method. Condoms have been proven to greatly reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS if used correctly every time and only provide some protection for other STDs.”

While it is true that nothing is safer than abstinence, with the correct use of condoms for 12 months, the pregnancy rate is as low as three percent. They also significantly reduce the risk of STIs, according to the World Health Organization. Beyond the debate on failure rates, a fundamental issue arises: Is it realistic to expect people to not have sex until they marry?

“What happens if a parent tells a teenager not to do something?” asked Harvey, smiling wryly. “Kids will have sex anyway. But if they are told that contraceptives aren’t safe, they won’t use them.”

When asked for an opinion on “teenagers having sex anyway,” DeLong at NYSP was annoyed. “Like they’re all animals and can’t control themselves. It’s true for some maybe, but it makes teenagers sound like wild animals. It’s ridiculous,” she said.

As an alternative to the abstinence-until-marriage approach, Kestrel High School promotes “educated abstinence.” Harvey shared that if sex is something shameful, teenage couples will not talk with each other but they will still have sex. He believes that if they have the right knowledge, they are much more likely to talk about contraceptives and whether they want to have sex at all. Teenagers have to understand sex to make smart decisions, according to Harvey.

“If you withhold information or give false information – that’s dangerous. If they grow up with misconceptions they’ll screw themselves up,” he said.

Many people oppose comprehensive sex education because they think it will encourage their kids to start having sex. Research shows quite the contrary; comprehensive sexuality education makes teenagers delay their sexual initiation and have less sexual partners.

If the abstinence-until-marriage approach has not lowered teen pregnancy rates, many think that the school should implement a more comprehensive sex education. “It’s not that easy,” according to Atkinson at PUSD. Teen pregnancy is caused by many contributing factors, such as poverty, low level of education in families, and high divorce rates – problems that she said all exist in Prescott.

“I think it’s a blanket statement to say that it’s based on what’s taught in schools,” she said. “I think to solve any social problem you have to look at all the contributing factors and figure out how to address them all simultaneously, and that’s easier said than done.… It has to be a community solution, not a school solution.”

Opinions in Prescott conflict on the topic. Harvey believes that the controversy around sex education is exaggerated. He thinks that schools erroneously assume parents will be angry if a comprehensive approach is introduced.

“We can certainly try! All I’m asking people is to have a little bit of vision,” he said.

This article appeared in the March 2011 print edition of The Raven Review.

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