Not all public school districts in the country provide sex education, and those that do are torn between emphasizing abstinence or recognizing that sex between teens occurs, so they should also focus on preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
With a boost from the Obama administration, the more comprehensive approach seems to be gaining favor, although not without opposition. "It's nice to see a sort of awakening across the country to do a more comprehensive approach," says Stephen Conley, who succeeded Susan Wooley on January 1 as executive director of the American School Health Association.
The Denver Public Schools Board of Education in June 2010 unanimously adopted a resolution stressing the importance of comprehensive sexuality education for adolescents. It calls for pursuing funding and other federal support to ensure that all its students "have access to science-based, comprehensive, medically accurate, culturally relevant and age-appropriate sexuality education, information and resources to make informed decisions about their health and relationships."
"Talking to Children about Sex," a guide for parents that the Denver district issued in 2007, addresses these issues. Without mentioning abstinence, it advises parents to teach their adolescent children that "sex is natural" but also that "it's okay to say no to sex until they're ready." It urges parents to discuss with their children the risk of "profound consequences" of sex—namely, pregnancy and disease—and "explain contraception" to them "without advocating sexual activity."
The human sexuality section of a revised health education curriculum that the Helena (Mont.) Public Schools adopted last October calls for students in grades 5-12 to be taught to "understand abstinence from sexual activity is a healthy choice and is the only 100 percent effective way" to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Instruction in grades 9-12 also aims to "evaluate the progression of reliability of various contraceptive methods," according to the curriculum document.
Helena Superintendent Bruce K. Messinger says the sex education part of the curriculum was revised twice before the document's adoption due to feedback from parents and other community members about issues including the age-appropriateness of some of its content. Families that continue to have objections can have their children "opt out" of certain sections of the curriculum. The district is considering how to create options for them, Messinger says.
Eighth graders in the East Lyme (Conn.) Public Schools learn the risks of early pregnancy and parenthood by being given chicken eggs and told to care for them for a week as if the eggs were infants and the students were 16-year-old parents. "If they go to a basketball game, for example, or someplace else, they have to figure out what to do with their egg—take it with them or call a babysitter," says Karen Costello, the district's administrator for program improvement. "Some of them get very distraught, and several eggs have been dropped. But they are learning responsibilities that come with their actions."
Five districts will seek to address prevention of teen pregnancy with new federal grants announced in September by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Gary Thomas, superintendent of the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Schools, one of the grant recipients, will use some of the funding to test a pregnancy prevention curriculum in 94 ninth-grade classes, says Kim Clark, project director of the district's teen pregnancy prevention program.
Also receiving grants are the Macon County (Ga.) Board of Education, Chicago Public Schools District 299, Iredell-Statesville (N.C.) Schools, and the Arlington (Texas) Independent School District. Abstinence supporters are disappointed by the funding because it supports sex education programs not based solely on abstinence. "We are very concerned that students are not being provided the best health message," says Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, which, she continues, is that they should abstain from sex until they are married. "Obviously, there has been a policy change at the federal level, and that certainly has implications at the public school level," says Huber.
Leslie Kantor, national director for education initiatives at Planned Parenthood, which advocates "comprehensive sexuality education" programs, says that evidence supports educational programs that "help young people delay sex until they are ready and use contraception when they begin to engage in it."
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill last year that included $7.5 million in funding for 58 family-planning centers in the state, including Planned Parenthood. Christie stated he had acted for fiscal, not ideological reasons. A bill to restore the funding was pending in the state legislature late last fall. "Abstinence classes can explain the various contraceptive choices and how they can reduce the risk of acquiring STDs or getting pregnant," Huber says. "This discussion, however, always stresses the best health choice of abstinence as the only way to prevent all risk."