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Pregnant in the Classroom:  Sex Ed Without the Stats

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 12 Mar 2012 08:26pm | comments
Mississippi Department of Education is backing controversial sex education programs. Photo by the Associated Press.

The Mississippi Department of Education has a shopping list of sorts as they wade through sex education programs. Lessons on HIV and AIDS – yes.  Condom demonstrations – no.  Mostly, the review council is looking for programs that comply with new state law, but they have authority to tighten parameters within the law’s framework.  In the first of our series "Pregnant in the Classroom,"  MPB's Southern Education Desk reporter, Annie Gilbertson, reports the council can select sex education programs that are proven to work – programs that have been adequately researched and have the stamp of approval from the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, but they don’t have to.

Mississippi has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in country – nearly double the national average. Contraction of sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, by Mississippi teens also tops national charts. So the fact that school districts can choose between programs proven to reduce these numbers and those that haven’t is proving controversial.

Clements: "What we are trying to do is get the strongest proposals out there, but also get a variety of proposals."

Scott Clements oversees sex education at the Mississippi Department of Education and says the reason the review council isn’t limiting selection to evidence-based programs is because the law doesn’t require them to.

Clements: “So anything that we feel like includes the pieces that must be included by state law, excludes that pieces that cannot be included by state law: we want to give the districts choices.”

But critics say so far the Department of Education has offered schools little in terms of choice.  The only sex education curricula that have been approved don’t meet the CDC’s standards of effectiveness.

That goes against the recommendation of the State Health Officer, Dr. Mary Currier, who says going with sex ed programs proven to work is absolutely the responsibility of the state.

Currier: “We actually would love to see schools use the ones endorsed by the CDC because we know they work. And we have a problem now, and we need to do something about it now.”

The two programs currently approved by the state, “Choosing the Best” and “WAIT Training” - WAIT being an acronym for “Why Am I Tempted” – have been around for almost two decades as Abstinence Only providers and have been criticized by comprehensive sex education advocates as being medically inaccurate, having evangelical Christian underpinnings, and reinforcing gender stereotypes.

Last summer, the Denver Westword published a video captured by reporter Andy Kopsa showing WAIT Training’s Shelly Donahue comparing teen girls to vacuum cleaners.

Donahue: “You don’t have to have intercourse to get her pregnant. You just have to get that viable sperm close to her vagina and she turns on the little Hoover vacuum."

Donahue makes a suction noise with her mouth

Donahue: "Because girls are very, very fertile.”

This video and others are a part of a growing effort by reporters such as Kopsa and comprehensive sex education advocates to investigate government entities that continue to support sex education without viable research.

Mounting public pressure and decreased federal investment have many states turning away from Abstinence Only sex education, but socially conservative states, many of which are found in the South, continue to support them (See a map sex ed spending in the South here).

In Mississippi, Democratic lawmakers say it’s politically impossible to move away from Abstinence Only education even though the vast majority of programs are not proven to reduce teen pregnancy.  John Mayo, a former democratic legislator, spearheaded the effort to put Abstinence Plus into practice – a form of sex education that teaches both the benefits of abstinence and the benefits of contraceptive use.   Abstinence Plus programs account for almost all sex education programs approved by the Center for Disease Control. Mayo says the reason the sex education law doesn’t require the CDC stamp of approval is political.

Mayo: “We had to look and say okay what can we do to get this to pass."

Gilbertson: "You felt like you had  to give them the option of Abstinence Only."

Mayo: “I would have preferred Abstinence Plus, but you would assume that whatever curriculum the Department adopts would be evidence based.”

And that’s the rub. Mayo says the Department of Education has the responsibility to approve evidence-based curricula based on their expertise.  But the Department of Education says it is simply following the law which does not require sex education programs to be evidenced-based.

Clements: “State law doesn’t require CDC standards. That obviously makes it stronger, but that isn’t the only criteria… they are evidence-based, they are promising, or medically accurate.”

The Department of Education also punts to local school boards who are next in line to make decisions about how kids learn about sex in schools.   The Department of Education’s review council, whose membership is not public,  is still examining sex ed curricula to be passed to school boards for final consideration and school board decisions will have to be made by June 30th.


Mississippi Department of Education is backing controversial sex education programs. Photo by the Associated Press.



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