Two Counties in Mississippi Adopt Abstinence-Only Policies
By Mary Walsh, SIECUS Program Research Intern
Mississippi’s House Bill 999, enacted into law in March of 2011, requires public schools to implement an abstinence-only or ‘abstinence-plus’ sexual health education program by the start of the 2012-2013 school year. Two counties have already met the mandate: Lincoln and Brookhaven counties have chosen to go abstinence-only, teaching about condoms and contraceptives only in terms of failure rates. The alternative approach teaches the benefits of abstinence but also gives comprehensive information about condoms, contraception, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections.
"Abstinence-only was the best fit for our district," explained Dr. Lisa Karmacharya, Brookhaven School District superintendent.1 While teen birth rates in Lincoln and Brookhaven counties are roughly double the national average, they are only mid-range for Mississippi as a whole, thus these “typical” school districts may embody the most common response of districts to the new law – that is, replacing ‘no’ local policy on sexual health education with an ‘abstinence-only’ policy based on local political concerns rather than best public health evidence.
The new law requires all districts to separate males and females during sexual health instruction, and while not requiring any specific curriculum the instructional materials must meet the standards of the state Department of Education. All public school districts must observe an “opt-in” policy, ensuring that only students whose parents signed a permission slip will actually participate. The new law also charges the Mississippi Department of Human Services and the Mississippi Department of Health to develop a new school sexual health education curriculum, as an option for local districts.
Mississippi leads the U.S. in teen birth rates. Rachael Canter, the Executive Director of the public policy advocacy non-profit Mississippi First, noted that "Kids in Mississippi have more sex at younger ages than kids in any other state in the country…by the 12th grade, 76 percent of (our) students have become sexually active."2 Mississippi First is partnering with the state Department of Health to support districts that choose an ‘abstinence-plus’ program with funds from a federal Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) grant.3
1 Caleb Bedillion, “Schools OK Early Plans for Sex Education,” Dailyleader.com, 11 August 2011, accessed 4 October 2011, <http://www.dailyleader.com/news/article_8d790e76-c437-11e0-9ac7-001cc4c002e0.html>.
2 Mississippi First, “Creating Healthy and Responsible Teens (C.H.A.R.T.) Initiative,” accessed 4 October 2011, <http://www.mississippifirst.org/CHART-initiative>.
3 Administration for Children & Families, Family and Youth Services Bureau, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Fact Sheet: Personal Responsibility Education Program,” 19 January 2011, accessed 4 October 2011, <http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/fysb/content/programs/tpp/prep-facts.htm>.