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Mixed Results as Inauguration Year for Healthy Youth Act in North Carolina Schools Kicks Off

A North Carolina bill signed into law on June 29, 2009, the Healthy Youth Act, has gone into effect for the first time this 2010–2011 school year. The new law requires school systems to offer information to students in grades seven through nine about the use of contraceptives for the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).[1] Previously, schools were required to exclusively teach an abstinence-only-until marriage curriculum. With enactment of the Healthy Youth Act, information about contraception will be taught alongside the abstinence-until-marriage programs that teach “that a mutually faithful monogamous heterosexual relationship in the context of marriage is the best lifelong means of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.”[2]
A 2009 survey from Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill sampled North Carolina public school parents and found that 91.8% think sexuality education should be taught in schools.[3] Simultaneously, a poll from Public Policy Polling indicated that the majority, 69%, of North Carolina voters supported the proposal in the General Assembly.[4] Despite this broad public support and support from parents, the new measure has faced controversy. Groups that promote abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have urged parents to make use of an opt-out policy that allows parents to exclude their children from participation in the new curriculum. In some cases, school administrators have been encouraged to not implement the law as intended—for example, by discussing contraceptives, as required, but sidestepping the heart of the law by only addressing their failure rates.[5]
Though the guidelines come from the state, the specific curriculum used is decided by each school district. For example, Guilford County students will learn more about sexual assault, community resources on sexual health, and emergency contraception, but otherwise no major changes will be made to the county’s already existing sexuality education program.[6] Elsewhere, however, school boards have treaded carefully, emphasizing parental choice in the ability to opt out. In some cases, school boards have gone further in proposing an opt-in policy instead. With an opt-in policy, parents would have to sign permission forms before students would be allowed to attend class, while an opt-out policy allows students to attend classes by default unless otherwise specified. In Brunswick County the school board narrowly voted to institute an opt-out policy over an opt-in policy. As the county superintendent noted, hundreds more would participate in the education programs with the opt-out policy rather than having to opt in.[7]
Other counties have made statements that suggest their programs will only cover the bare necessities to be in compliance with the law. Cleveland County emphasized that abstinence would remain its primary message and that instruction would be “limited to the facts.”[8] John Goforth, director of secondary education for Cleveland County, was keen to clarify, “We don’t demonstrate the use of contraceptives. We won’t demonstrate anything.” He went on to say, “We won’t be talking about abortion, we won’t be talking about lifestyles; we won’t be talking about a person’s partner choices . . . that’s not part of our curriculum.”[9]
Youth activists in North Carolina are working to ensure that proper implementation of the bill is carried out. Teen advocate Dan Jubelirer stated, “Simply passing a law wasn’t good enough . . . I’m working along with fellow youth activists in NC to find out who’s doing what, which school systems are refusing to follow the law, and how we can support school systems who honestly want to provide an effective education for students.”[10] Groups such as the Healthy Youth NC Coalition and Advocates for Youth also seek to support and assist schools as they adopt comprehensive sexuality education.
“The grassroots efforts of North Carolinians, and particularly the youth advocates across the state that continue to advocate for their right to comprehensive sexuality education, is admirable,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). “We hope school boards across North Carolina will respond to these efforts and the polling proving parents support more comprehensive approaches to sex education by accurately and effectively addressing the desires and needs of a state plagued with much too high rates of STDs and unintended teen pregnancy.”

[1] Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, North Carolina State Profile Fiscal Year 2009 (New York: SIECUS, 2009), accessed 16 September 2010, <http://www.siecus.local/index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.ViewPage&PageID=1237>.

[2] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-81(e1)(4)(e).

[3] William D. Kalsbeek et al., North Carolina Parent Opinion Survey of Public School Sexuality Education: An Update to the 2003 Survey (Chapel Hill, NC: Survey Research Unit, University of NC at Chapel Hill and Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of NC, April 2009), accessed 16 September 2010, <>, 8.

[4] Public Policy Polling, Overwhelming Support for Sex Ed Bill, press release, 23 February 2009, accessed 16 September 2010, <>.

[5] Dan Jubelirer, “Comprehensive Sex Education Coming to NC, but Not without Challenges,” Amplify blog, 3 September 2010, accessed 16 September 2010, <>.

[6] J. Brian Ewing, “Changes Made to Sex Ed Curriculum,” News & Record, 15 August 2010, accessed 16 September 2010, <>.

[7] Patricia E. Matson, “Contested Sex Ed Measure Adopted in Brunswick County,” Star News, 3 August 2010, accessed 16 September 2010, <>.

[8] Rebecca Clark, “Birds and Bees Join ABCs: More Sex Education Coming to Cleveland County Public Schools,” Star, 30 August 2010, accessed 16 September 2010, <>.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jubelirer, “Comprehensive Sex Education Coming to NC, but Not without Challenges.”