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For their own good
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An overwhelming majority of Floridians, including many who describe themselves as evangelical Christians, think public schools should teach sex education, according to a St. Petersburg Times survey.
What's more, they think the curriculum should go beyond an abstinence-only approach, covering such topics as disease prevention and contraception.
Nearly nine out of 10 Florida voters said public schools should offer some form of sex education. Of those, only 8 percent said districts should teach abstinence only, which emphasizes abstaining from all sexual behaviors and does not include information on contraception except in terms of failure rates.
The findings were similar regardless of age, income or gender. Those who described themselves as evangelical or fundamentalist Christians (about 72 respondents) were only slightly less likely to agree that students need to hear about more than abstinence.
"I have values and I try to instill them in my children," said Tony McRae, a New Port Richey father who describes himself as fundamentalist. "I'm also realistic enough to know the ways of the world. There's a lot of temptation out there, and it's not always easy to resist."
McRae, 48, who has three teenage daughters, put his eldest daughter on birth control when he found out she was sexually active. The Pasco County school system's reliance on "abstinence and wise choices" neither dissuaded his children from engaging in premarital sex, nor taught them how to protect themselves from pregnancy or disease, McRae said.
The Times survey was administered to 702 registered voters Feb. 6-10 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. It also found that:
- Respondents with school-age children were more likely to say that sex education should include information about disease prevention and contraception than respondents without children in school.
- Only 2 percent of Democrats said sex education should be abstinence only, compared with 18 percent of Republicans.
- Women were nearly twice as likely as men to say sex education should begin in elementary school.
The results came as no surprise to Brian Dodge, a former public health professor at the University of Florida who now is associate director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University. Dodge said opponents of what the state Department of Education calls comprehensive sexuality education or "abstinence plus" are a vocal but very well-funded minority.
Still, Dodge said, a recent survey of Florida teachers he conducted for UF indicated that educators are influenced by those who would prefer children to hear an abstinence-only message.
"They're teaching sexuality education in stealth," Dodge said. "They're doing the best they can in a very contentious environment."
Current Florida statutes stress abstinence, but give districts the discretion to offer more. Pinellas County sixth-graders have a growth and development unit that includes information on conception but not contraception. Eighth-graders learn about condoms in relation to disease prevention, but parents must sign an opt-in form before their children can participate.
Hillsborough schools teach abstinence, but instructors will respond to student questions about safe sex precautions, and students are taught about sexually transmitted diseases.
The differences would evaporate if two South Florida lawmakers convince the Legislature that all Florida schools should emphasize abstinence while teaching students how to protect themselves from disease and pregnancy beginning in the sixth grade.
"Parents want their kids taught that abstinence is the only certain way to prevent pregnancy," said Sen. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, a sponsor of the Healthy Teens Act. "But beyond that, this legislation provides our kids with accurate scientific information that could help to prevent teen pregnancy and save lives."
Terry Kemple, a Christian community activist in Brandon and president of the public policy group Community Issues Council, says the bill isn't likely to go far, because "most legislators see through the ruse."
"This isn't about healthy teens," Kemple said. "This is about promoting sex."
Cosette DiLorenzo of Tampa disagrees.
"Young people today need to know all the facts," said DiLorenzo, 66, the mother of two grown daughters. "Without information, it seems to me they are more likely to engage in dangerous behaviors that result in bad consequences."
Nancy Hoppe of Largo was among 17 percent of respondents who said public schools should teach comprehensive sex education without discussing abstinence at all.
"A lot of kids who try to do the abstinence thing get in trouble when they can't manage it," said Hoppe, 76. "I just think a rational approach is the better approach."
People on both sides of the debate point to statistics to bolster their arguments. In 2005, 47 percent of female high school students and 54 percent of male high school students in Florida reported having had sexual intercourse. In the same year, 12 percent of female high school students and 21 percent of male high school students reported having had four or more sexual partners.
For Kemple, those numbers signal the need for abstinence-only education.
"Do we teach kids that they're basically animals who can't control their sexual urges, so go ahead and have sex, and oh by the way, be sure to use a condom?" Kemple said. "Or do we tell them they are actually rational human beings who can avoid early sexual activity? Let's teach them the coping skills to be able to effectively do that."
For Deutch, the statistics underline the need for more comprehensive sex education. He refutes the idea that teaching abstinence alone will prevent teen pregnancy. And while information about sex ideally should come from parents, Deutch says, some parents can't or won't do the job, so it must fall to the schools.
Regardless of where they fall in the debate, nearly everyone agrees that sex education must be age appropriate, said Peggy Johns, the Pinellas school district's health supervisor. But as the Times survey indicates, there's a difference of opinion regarding the "right" age.
While the majority of respondents said sex education should be aimed at middle school students, more than one-third said it should begin in elementary school.
One way to rise above the controversy, Johns said, is to keep in mind that the information kids get in school should carry them through their lifetime.
"In our high school program, we provide family planning for future healthy behaviors," Johns said. "We go over the contraception methods for students so that as adults they'll be able to decide what's in their best interest."
- Florida has the sixth highest teen pregnancy rate with 48,440 teenage pregnancies annually.
- Florida has the second highest AIDS rate in the country, with 4,960 new AIDS cases in 2005 and 100,809 cases overall.
- In 2006, Florida had 121,791 reported cases of sexually transmitted infections other than HIV/AIDS.