In the spring, public school students in Midland will cross what until very recently was the political third rail of sex education. For the first time, they will be taught about contraception — and how to practice safe sex.
The West Texas town is known for oil and Republican presidents, not progressive social policy. But after watching the teen pregnancy rates creep up year after year — 172 pregnant girls were enrolled in the town’s public schools last year — many in the community realized something needed to change.
“These are girls as young as 13 that are pregnant, some of them are on their second pregnancies,” said Tracey Dees, the supervisor of health services in the district of just under 22,000 students, adding that many of them reported having sexually transmitted infections as well.
Eighteen months ago, with input from parents, staff and other community leaders, the school board decided to implement a new curriculum for seventh and eighth-graders — one that emphasizes that waiting to have sex is best, but also teaches students about condoms and birth control. Midland is just one of a number of schools, from West Texas to the suburbs of Houston, that are moving toward “abstinence-plus” education at the urging of their health advisory committees made up of community members.
“We’re getting calls from all over the state,” said Susan Tortolero, the director of the University of Texas' Prevention Research Center in Houston who developed the curriculum being used in Midland. “It’s like we’re beyond this argument of abstinence, abstinence plus. Districts want something that works.”
While many people still believe that talking about contraception gives children permission to have sex, or even encourages them to do so, Tortoloro said, research shows that teaching them about condoms and birth control actually delays sexual initiation.
“I can assure you that kids aren’t getting aroused when they see a condom,” she said.
At a time when children are learning about sex on television and through the Internet and their friends, she said, it is important to make sure the correct information is out there. “The more you know about your body, how to make better decisions and choices, the better decisions that adolescents make,” she said, adding, “The more we demystify it, the more we talk about it, the better.”
Though some support exists for specific abstinence-only programs, particularly those that do not apply a moralistic lens to sexual behavior, a larger body of research indicates that the approach is ineffective at preventing teen pregnancies. It remains the preferred choice for Texas’ public schools. Democratic lawmakers have struggled for years to pass legislation that requires districts to use medically accurate information in sex education curriculum.
The state health department, which last year chose not to apply for federal financing that supported more comprehensive programs, remains the largest recipient of federal money for abstinence-only grants. A law passed in 1995 under the leadership of then-Gov. George W. Bush gives districts latitude in deciding how, or if, they want to offer sex education — as long as they teach more about abstinence than any other method. Though that leaves room for more comprehensive approaches, as late as 2009, according to a study from the Texas Freedom Network, the vast majority of districts chose to teach only abstinence.
That is slowly changing. In Harris County, nine school districts either have or are in the process of adopting an abstinence-plus curriculum, according to Tortolero. Districts in Austin, Corpus Christi, San Antonio and Plano have followed suit. A new analysis, which has not yet been released, from the Texas Freedom Network, of data reported to the Texas Education Agency last spring, shows that while “abstinence is still the king” there’s been “a big shift” in how districts approach sex education, said David Wiley, a professor at Texas State University who is reviewing the data for the watchdog group that monitors rightwing activity.
The change is due in part to new politics in Washington, where much of the money the Bush Administration designated for abstinence-only education is gone. Grants under the Obama administration focus on what it calls “evidence-based” teen pregnancy prevention, which usually means programs that teach both abstinence and contraception. But many districts, including Midland, are making the switch because they have realized the severity of the teen pregnancy problem in the state — which according to 2008 data from the National Center for Health Statistics has the third-highest birth rate among 15- to 19-year-olds in the nation.
Dees said she hoped the number of pregnant girls in Midland would begin to decline with the new curriculum.
“I would love to be able say those are going to be 100-percent effective, we’re going to turn this thing around,” she said. “What we are going to do is impact children to make better choices in regard to sexual integrity. And that would potentially be delaying sexual activity. We’re not going to stop teenagers from having sex. I wish we could, but we’re not going to.”
Spring Branch ISD, just outside of Houston, began exploring abstinence-plus programs about three years ago. After seeing a slight increase in pregnancies among its students and examining behavioral trends among young people, it will implement the new curriculum next year, said Rebecca Fuchs, the district’s director of health and fitness.
Federal financing did not play a role in the district’s decision, she said. After a painstaking process in which the district’s school health advisory committee reached out to as many parents as possible — bringing in translators in some instances, she said — it became clear that the community wanted students to learn about more than abstinence.
Ed Ainsworth, a pastor in Lubbock who is perhaps the state’s most visible abstinence-only proponent, said the movement toward teaching about more about contraception made him “a little nervous.”
“You just have to think, how strong are they hitting the abstinence message, and which option would you take as a teenager?” he said. “Most people take the path of the least resistance.”
This year Ainsworth, who has appeared on Dr. Phil and was featured prominently in the PBS documentary The Education of Shelby Knox, will travel this year to between 50 and 60 schools in Texas — and more across the country — to deliver his abstinence-only message. During the height of the Bush administration, he said he was hitting more than 100.
Like Tortolero, he said the key to talking to students about sex education was giving them proper knowledge to make decisions — though for him, that means learning about the pratfalls of so-called safe sex.
“Will a condom protect your heart? As a female, will a condom protect your reputation?” he said. “It might protect you from getting pregnant, it might protect you from getting a disease, but there’s no way it will protect your heart, mind, emotions, and reputation. There’s no way. So how can we call it safe?”
Amarillo-based Worth the Wait provides abstinence-only curriculum for schools in the Texas Panhandle. So far, those districts have not asked for a more comprehensive program, said Amy Christie, the executive director. This year, the number of districts that use the curriculum has dropped from seven to four.
Christie said that was because of budget cuts at the state level, not a changing philosophy or a loss of federal grants. Right now the organization has no plans to expand how its curriculum covers contraception, she said. But because the program is revised yearly based on feedback from districts and an evaluation from Baylor University, she said, that could change.