General Articles

Controversy Report: 2008-2009 School Year


Progress Continues, Though Heightened Fears about Teen Pregnancy and LGBTQ Issues Spur Familiar Debates
2008-09 School Year
by Maxwell Ciardullo, Information Coordinator
Rebecca Di Meo, Community Advocacy Intern
Renee Muza, Community Advocacy Intern
In the 2008-09 school year, advocates of comprehensive sexuality education witnessed a seismic political change as the nation elected Barack Obama, the first U.S. President to campaign on his support for sex education. At the beginning of his term, he expressed his intention to end federal funding for failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and to begin funding sex education that includes accurate information about contraception. This support on the national level has continued to fuel the changes SIECUS has monitored over the past few years. Communities across the country began to add information about, and access to, condoms and contraceptives and challenge abstinence-only programs. This year we also saw a number of school districts that improved their sex education after being spurred by state education laws and guidelines. 
In the midst of these positive trends, SIECUS has also been paying close attention to the obstacles that remain. We’ve noticed that conversations about sex education are often being whittled down to panicked debates over how to reduce teen pregnancy.  In other communities, curricula that discuss sex, contraceptives, or sexual orientation are still coming under fire by abstinence-only ideologues and parents uncomfortable with honest conversations about these topics. These same forces persist in their opposition to discussions or acknowledgements of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) people or issues. While students have made great progress in their push for respect and support, sexual orientation and gender identity continue to be flashpoints for controversy. 
SIECUS has been tracking controversies regarding sexuality education for over 15 years and tracked over 200 stories this year alone. This special report provides examples of the types of controversies communities faced during the 2008–09 school year, as well as ongoing analysis that attempts to put each controversy into a broader perspective both historically and moving forward.
In the 2008–09 school year, teen pregnancy was once again an incredibly important motivator for school districts that considered changes to their sex education curricula. This is no surprise because the national conversation about what young people should learn about sex and sexuality in school has largely narrowed to a conversation about how to prevent teens from getting pregnant. Even the Obama administration’s promised sex education initiative was unveiled as a teen pregnancy prevention program. This trend is also being fueled by the recent reversal of the national decline in teen births and pregnancies. The result is that many communities across the country are startled and outraged about the high, and often increasing, rates of teen pregnancy in their area. We tracked over 30 communities this year where advocates cited teen pregnancy numbers as justification for proposed sex education curriculum changes.
In Gaston County, NC, the health department made the case to the school district that including contraceptive information in sex education is necessary to bring down high teen pregnancy rates. The county health director reported that 519 young women between 15 and 19 became pregnant in 2007 in Gaston County, which is greater than the state average.[1]

The board of education’s curriculum committee also broached the topic in March 2008, but focused on abstinence-only approaches. The district reported that it discussed sex with fifth and sixth graders for 90 minutes as part of an abstinence-only program. Districts in North Carolina are required to teach about abstinence until marriage, but may also include lessons on birth control and condoms if the school board holds a public meeting, shares materials with parents, and votes to adopt it. 
The county health director has spoken out in response, saying that not teaching about contraception was one of the “leading factors” in the increase in Gaston County teen pregnancies since 2003.[2] She recommended including information about contraceptives and increasing the time dedicated to sex education. 
One school board member seemed open to the discussion, saying “We’re concerned as is the Health Department about the number of teenage pregnancies.  In a partnership with parents, we will certainly look at the issue.” However, the chairman of the curriculum committee was less interested, remarking that he was not aware of the number of teen pregnancies and that the district would continue to teach abstinence-until-marriage.[3]
In the meantime, the health department is prioritizing reducing teen pregnancies and is sponsoring sex education workshops in the local library for high school-aged young women, as well as hosting a teen clinic.
A similar story unfolded in Lee County, IA when a local pregnancy prevention coalition cited high teen birth rates as reason to adopt a new sex education curriculum. The Lee County Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Coalition was formed after a district task force indentified teen pregnancy as one of the contributors to the high school’s 69% graduation rate in the 2005–2006 school year.[4] 
The coalition recommended the Safer Choices curriculum in their talks with administrators and made the case for implementing it in middle schools. “Kids aren’t aware of consequences, and how their choices can change their lives forever.  If we don’t talk about these things, such as pregnancy and safe sex and sexually transmitted diseases, the statistics will keep rising,” said the program coordinator of the coalition.[5]
The district’s interim superintendent said she hadn’t looked at the curriculum yet, but agreed that the teen pregnancy rate is concerning. She planned to explore a number of options to meet the state’s human growth and development requirements. By the 2008–09 school year, the district began to teach the Safer Choices program in the middle schools and instituted an additional after school program.[6]
In Washington, PA, the district administration did not wait to be publicly prompted by the local advocates or health officials, but suggested a curriculum change itself. The school superintendent cited a rise in teen pregnancies at the high school and suggested an expansion of the Teen Outreach Program. The program currently offers sex education to students in eighth through 12th grades and the proposed expansion would allow fifth, sixth, and seventh grade students to access it as well.[7]
Despite the superintendent making the case that offering sex education to younger students would bring the teen pregnancy rate down, some parents objected. One parent, quoted on a local news show, said that she believes “fifth grade is really too young to know about that.  I think children are introduced to sex education early enough as it is and parents need to be more involved with their children, and need to talk to them first.”[8] The superintendent responded by reminding parents that the program is not mandatory, but an elective.  
The district eventually decided to expand the program, as its website currently lists the Teen Outreach Program as a part of the sixth and seventh grade health curriculum.[9] The fifth grade curriculum is not available yet. 
In two Wisconsin cities, the issue of teen pregnancy became particularly salient as statistics spurred electoral changes on the school board and funding partnerships with outside organizations. Students in Beloit, WI have been without sex education for five years and the inaction by the school board was one of the issues that compelled voters to elect three new board members in April 2009. In the past, board members have not agreed on what to include in a sex education program, so the issue was constantly tabled. One of the reasons it gained importance this year was a reported spike in teen pregnancies.
The new school board chair reported in February 2010 that the district is looking into sex education programs and that he is open to a program that includes information on contraception and disease prevention. The assistant superintendent is currently compiling a report on possible curricula. He said that although the district is still exploring options, they are well aware of their students’ lack of education. “We have all kinds of data that shows our kids are pretty uninformed of the kinds of decisions they are making,” he said.[10]
The school board chair explained that the reason the district doesn’t already have a program in place is that the Wisconsin legislature is currently finalizing a bill that would affect sex education in schools and he wanted to make sure the district would be in compliance. As the state senator from Beloit explained, the impetus for the state-wide policy change was also the “current epidemic” of teen pregnancy and STDs.[11]
A little farther north, in Milwaukee, WI, the school district was working to finalize its new curriculum as part of its partnership with the United Way of Greater Milwaukee to reduce teen pregnancy. 
The United Way’s goal is to drastically reduce the teen pregnancy rate by 2015 and its plan is to start with the 2008–09 fourth grade class and follow them through high school with updated sex education programming. In its advocacy, the organization has stressed the cost of teen births to the city, as well as the fact that “Milwaukee is one of the Top Ten cities within the U.S. with the highest percentage of total births to teen mothers.”[12] The school district, also concerned about the teen pregnancy rate and other sexual health issues, embarked on this K–12 update process over the summer of 2008 and shared the program with the school board over the fall. 
The board had no objections and the program is now in place, with students receiving human growth and development lessons in grades K–8 and during health class in high school. The previous curriculum had not been updated since 2002. The implementation process has largely been funded by the United Way, which has paid for the district’s teacher trainings, materials, and meetings costs associated with the new program. 
In addition to working with the schools, the United Way of Greater Milwaukee has also written a report, If Truth Be Told: Teen pregnancy, public health, and the cycle of poverty, brought together an oversight committee to collaborate with city agencies and organizations, and created a media campaign intended to “help youths to understand the consequences of teen pregnancy.”[13] The PSAs, done in the style of a horror movie trailer, attracted particular attention after some commentators compared their fear-based approach to abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.[14]
In each of these communities, advocates concerned about teen pregnancy worked hard to implement sex education programs that included accurate information about contraception. 
In many other communities, teen pregnancy data compelled advocates to push for more than just accurate information; they wanted contraception to be available to students in school-based health centers. 
Perhaps the most widely followed story about teen pregnancy in the past year involved just such a policy change. Gloucester, MA, which made national headlines in May 2008 when 17 students were reported pregnant at the high school, made contraception available to its students after a school board vote in October 2008.[15]
The district had been discussing the possibility of allowing students access to contraception since the spring of 2008, but the explosive controversy and national media attention over the alleged “pregnancy pact” between the 17 young pregnant women temporarily derailed the conversation. After the media storm settled, Gloucester school officials released a new draft policy in September 2008 that would institute a sexuality education program that encourages effective contraceptive use as well as abstinence, free day-care services for the teen mothers who are students at the high school, and contraceptive availability (with parental consent) through the school-based health clinic. With acknowledgment from the superintendent that the majority of teenagers are sexually active, the school committee unanimously voted to allow students access to contraceptives within the school-based health clinic in October.[16]
Reaction to the decision was mostly positive.  A school survey showed that 86 percent of students were in favor of contraception availability.  One mother, whose daughter is one of the 17 new teen mothers, said she also supports the distribution of contraceptives with parental consent.[17]
In nearby Revere, MA, the mayor and School Committee were paying attention to the example of Gloucester and decided that their own teen pregnancy statistics warranted similar action. However, their proposal to make contraceptives available to high school students in the school-based health center did generate some opposition. 
After the Gloucester controversy, the director of the health center began to look at Revere’s teen pregnancy numbers and found that the high school had seen a 50 percent increase in teen pregnancy between the 2005–06 and 2007–08 school years.[18] The mayor joined him in concern and expressed support for the idea of making contraceptives available at school-based health centers.
School committee members held a number of discussions and approved the measure at the end of February, but it has since received some criticism for both its handling of the vote and the decision itself.
One of the members of the school committee spoke out against the policy saying that she “couldn’t in good conscience vote for it… It increases promiscuity rather than having it be a deterrent to early sex.”[19] The school has also received criticism from a priest in the local Catholic Church who said the decision was “not good for children because we’re telling them that sex is a mechanical thing.”[20]
The same committee members who voted against the policy have also criticized the school for not involving more parents in the process. They believe there should have been fliers and announcements about the vote because the issue of providing students with contraception is potentially controversial.
The mayor responded that the decision was a matter of public health, made with the input of the local hospital that runs the school-based health center. He also reiterated that the school committee meetings are open to all parents and that the health center staff encourages students to talk to their parents.[21]
The new policy allows high school students who are enrolled in the school-based health center to receive several forms of contraception if their parents sign up for the service when they enroll.  Contraceptive services will include condoms, birth control pills, birth control shots, and emergency contraception pills.[22] Opponents of the policy continued their complaints and were successful in adding a ballot initiative to overturn the policy on the November 2009 ballot. However, the initiative was defeated in a 3,404–2,695 vote and the district’s school-based health center is now making contraceptives available.[23]
Controversy also emerged in Cumberland County, NJ schools when teen pregnancy rates prompted two high schools to decide whether to open school-based health centers that would provide contraceptive services. 
In April 2008, the retirement of the Cumberland Regional High School (CRHS) school nurse created what school officials deemed “a void” in the services being provided at the school.  Officials agreed that the nurse had been instrumental in working beyond her “regular responsibilities” to connect students in need of health services with transportation to community-based medical centers where they could receive comprehensive health care.  To help fill this void, school board members met in May with Community Health Care, Inc., a group of community-based medical centers, to discuss the possibility of opening of a comprehensive health clinic on school grounds.[24]
Community Health Care already operates in-school comprehensive health care clinics at two high schools in Cumberland County.  Both of those school-based health centers also offer Community Health Care’s Sexual Accountability for Everyone (SAFE) program, which was a part of the proposal for CRHS.  The SAFE program provides sexual health services, including gynecological exams, pregnancy and STD tests, and birth control prescriptions.[25] Millville Senior High School, the fourth high school in the county, considered a similar proposal as well.
Although most CRHS board members acknowledged that the retirement of the school nurse had created a void, some did not believe there was a need for a full service health clinic that included sexual health services on campus.  However, after a meeting with the SAFE director it became obvious that some members of the board were unaware of how high the pregnancy rate actually was at CRHS.  One board member was quoted in April as saying she “was only aware of 3 or 4 pregnancies at CRHS last year” and that “we don’t have a pregnancy problem at Regional.”[26]  However, that same week the Cumberland County director of SAFE maintained that students from CRHS had in fact accounted for a total of “30 pregnancies…during the 2007–2008 school year.”  She added “you can bet that every time that there was a pregnancy test, someone was having unprotected sex.”[27]
After further discussion among health care providers and school administrators, the board’s only remaining concerns were about parental consent and making sure parents had explicit notice of “what they are giving consent to when they allow their teenagers to visit the [school-based health center].”[28] 
In September 2009, both the CRHS District and Millville Senior High School District voted to approve and begin the SAFE program at health centers in their schools. Parents were given a detailed permission form at the beginning of the year and a CRHS board member explained “We feel that we gave parents adequate opportunity to express what they want for their child.”[29] The services will be administered by a nurse that visits the schools throughout the week. 
In Daly City, CA, similar concerns about teen pregnancy drove the principal of Thornton High School to suggest a condom availability program for students. Thornton serves 130 students deemed “high risk” by the district because of struggles with academics or other personal issues and the principal cited 36 student pregnancies in the past two years.[30]  The school special-services counselor also reported having over 100 conversations with students about STD or pregnancy scares.  The principal summarized the statistics and his understanding of the students’ sexual behavior, saying “While most adults like to believe kids are not doing this, the reality is they are.  It’s very scary.”[31]
Given this information, the principal believed it was time to start making condoms available to students. He began by encouraging the superintendent and school district trustees to examine a proposal that would allow the Daly City Youth Health Center, which already partners with the district, to provide condoms to the students in schools after they complete a confidential meeting with a center counselor.
One trustee seemed sympathetic to the program, stating “we feel like we’re at the point that we want to move ahead with this pilot program over there on condom distribution for both prevention of STDs and prevention of teen pregnancies.”[32] Press accounts of the story showed little opposition to the plan, perhaps because surrounding districts had successfully instituted similar programs.
In March 2009, the district trustees voted to allow the condom availability program and health center staff reported that demand for the new service was high as they gave out 1,000 condoms in the first six weeks.[33]
In these four communities, public health professionals and even district administrators and school board members made reducing teen pregnancy a priority and succeeded in making important sexual health services accessible to students. In many other communities, teen pregnancy numbers were a key piece of the argument for new sex education curricula that included some information about contraception. In both scenarios young people gained more tools to help them make decisions about their sexual health. 
This trend has been a frustrating one as well, as SIECUS has noticed that the most common arguments for adding sexuality education or services now focus on reducing teen pregnancy. This focus is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it sells sex education short by focusing on problem prevention as opposed to the more positive goal of holistic sexual health. By narrowly focusing in on one behavioral goal (pregnancy prevention) these programs dismiss the other myriad issues of body image, dating, human sexual response, sexual orientation, gender identity, role, and expression that young people confront in their daily lives. Comprehensive sexuality education includes lessons on all of these topics, in addition to information about delaying sex, accessing contraception, and preventing STDs. 
Secondly, arguments for teen pregnancy reduction often have the unintended effect of stigmatizing pregnant and parenting teens. In some cases, advocates have taken fear-based approaches, such as United Way of Milwaukee’s horror movie trailer PSA, “2028.” The trailer follows the story of a young woman that has sex at a party, is shunned, has to deal with an abusive father, excruciating labor, and a son who is arrested as a teenager. The trailer ends with the message “Get pregnant as a teen and the next 18 years could be the hardest of your life.”[34] The fear and shame in these messages do not address young people with honesty and respect and do not portray an accurate picture of teen pregnancy in the United States. 
In many cases, pregnant and parenting teens