Sex education reform stalls

Abstinence-only backers seek program revisions.

Published May 18, 2007


A pair of attempts to alter the way Florida public schools teach children about sex died with the end of the recent legislative session. Both proposals reflected a national tug of war about abstinence education.

The Prevention First Act would have required the state Department of Education to provide an array of family planning and sexuality education within four years. Another bill, sponsored by Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, would have required schools offering abstinence-only education to post the curricula on their Web sites. "Abstinence-only" education teaches the avoidance of premarital sex as the expected standard of behavior and the only acceptable way to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

The activity in the Legislature came shortly after the release of a widely publicized study on sex education by Mathematica Policy Research. It found abstinence-only programs don't reduce teen sexual activity or unprotected sex.

In another recent development, six states - Ohio, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Montana and New Jersey - have announced they will turn down federal funding to teach abstinence-only programs.

The issue resonates strongly in Hillsborough, where in 2005 former commissioner and current state Sen. Ronda Storms famously called Planned Parenthood a "pro-death" organization as she led a successful effort to kill funding for a teen theater group.

When it comes to sex education, prevention and abstinence, few observers are neutral. Community activist Terry Kemple of Brandon sees the public schools as a battleground in a moral struggle.

"A lot of people grew up in a time that was about free love and if it feels good, do it, " said Kemple, a former director of Students Taking A New Direction. "They are now pushing that philosophy on our culture to justify their own behavior."

Kemple and other proponents of abstinence-only education would like to revise sex education in Hillsborough, which teaches abstinence as the preferred approach for teens. That program, which educators call "abstinence-plus, " discusses contraception as part of an eighth-grade health class.

"We promote abstinence, " said Steve Vanoer, who directs student health programs for the county. "But if you do not abstain, here is what you need to do to prevent diseases and unplanned pregnancies."

Students who bring a signed statement from parents can opt out of the courses. Kemple contends schools should not teach contraception methods at all. "What abstinence-plus teaches kids is, 'Well, you should probably be abstinent, but since we know you're animals and are going to have sex anyway, you should probably use a condom, ' " Kemple said.

Hillsborough receives $300, 000 annually under Title V, the funding source that six states have rejected. But few county dollars go to abstinence-only education, said assistant superintendent of schools Gwen Luney, who oversees federal programs.

An exception is the Brandon Care Pregnancy Center, which contracts with schools to carry a message of abstinence into classrooms. "I don't want to reduce the risk. I want to eliminate the risk, " said prevention specialist Angie Kagey of the center.

The Mathematica study has cast a shadow on efforts to do that. After following up with 3, 000 youths with an average age of 15, the study found children who had been taught a standard of abstinence until marriage were just as likely to have sexual intercourse - about half of those polled - as those taught with other approaches. Seventeen percent in the abstinence-only group reported having had sex with four or more partners.

Adrienne Lazeroff, the director of Planned Parenthood in Florida, vowed to continue working for bills sponsored by Rich and Geller when they are re-introduced in 2008.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at 661-2431 or ameacham@sptimes.com.