Abstinence-only preserved in Charleston schools 

But new board decision gives parents a choice

Many moons ago, parents got their chastity belts in a bunch over sexual education in schools. For the most part, the attitude was that the only person that could keep Dick away from Jane was Jesus. And if you teach them how to put a sock on his "thing," the two are destined to do the nasty.

But a contentious debate before the Charleston County School Board last week showed how this issue has evolved. We're no longer worried about whether or not the school is teaching sex-ed; the concern now is about the quality of that education.

For years, millions of dollars were funneled to nonprofit abstinence programs and the for-profit industry supplying them. But there's been fresh criticism in recent years about the effectiveness of a sex-ed classroom without bananas and rubbers. And it has some wondering whether we're adequately equipping our teens for what happens when seven minutes in heaven goes into extra innings.

Brief Death of Abstinence Only

Per state law, every sex-ed program needs to encourage abstinence. So the question seems to be the level of encouragement. The focus is on abstinence-only programs like those offered by North Charleston-based Heritage Community Services.

More than a decade ago, the Charleston County School Board agreed to let schools choose from two forms of sex-ed: abstinence only and the amorphous "comprehensive." And board member Gregg Meyers is still so tired from that tiff that he's not quite ready to re-evaluate that decision.

"I was surprised that we were dragged back to this question — I don't actually appreciate it," he says.

The district has a 10-member Health Advisory Committee tasked with routinely reviewing sex-ed offerings. After spending two years analyzing Heritage's materials, including an analysis of the entire 1,200-page curriculum, the committee voted 9 to 1 to remove it from the approved list.

Chairwoman Deborah Miller says Heritage's materials don't meet state and federal standards, don't address the risks and benefits of contraception, provide inaccurate information, and reveal a bias against single parents and divorced families.

Miller says that one member of the board, a student in the district, went through the Heritage program and found it had no value and that specific questions from students were ignored if they didn't pertain to the Heritage curriculum.

"Charleston County has a motto: Excellence is our standard," Miller told the board last week. "The committee thought you could do better."

But the board decided that it could not do better. Or, more specifically, that it didn't want to do better.

Political Volleyball

Meyers accused Miller and the committee of injecting politics into this debate and suggested the members run for the school board if they wanted to make these kinds of decisions.

"I'm concerned we have ideology driving this question," he said. "If you want to tell us to boot somebody out, you need to show what the results have been."

Both Heritage and its critics have surveys they can point to in support of or opposition to the program.

A 2007 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found the program was no more helpful in reducing teen sex rates or the number of sexual partners than any other program, similar to findings regarding other abstinence-only offerings.

And Heritage has avoided some complaints about its shortcomings by noting that teachers aren't prevented from offering additional materials or information to students outside of the Heritage program. State law requires 750 minutes of sex-ed instruction and Heritage's marriage-first program clocks in at 450. So teachers should feel free to break out the bananas and the odes to single mothers in Act III.

"We're not trying to own the building," said Angela Owens, a Heritage staffer, on the need for a variety of programs. "We just want to rent an office."

Give Me a Choice

Prior to the board's decision, two dozen people stood up at the meeting last week in support of Heritage, though at least 17 of those 24 were Heritage staff or volunteers, some from as far away as Greenville.

Their overwhelming message was that Heritage should remain an option for parents. And Meyers and other board members were listening.

"I want to make sure students learn the methods of contraception, and I want them to understand them, but I really don't have a problem with students also hearing there's an alternative way to think about it," Meyers said. "Some kids are going to grab that message, other kids are going to the other message. I think it's important they hear both."

But, as the debate wore on, it became clear that parents actually don't have an option.

Sex-ed teachers choose the curriculum they're going to use in their classroom from six programs approved by the board. Regardless of the selected program's message — whether it stresses sex-ed, safe sex-ed, or no sex-ed — parents have only had one choice before them: yes or no. They can take the sex-ed program endorsed by the teacher or leave the lessons to the parent's own often outdated experience and whatever can be gleaned from late night basic cable.

Board member Chris Fraser was stunned.

"This is a parental decision," he said. "I'm not here to decide what is effective or not. I'm not qualified ... but I don't like the idea of having no choice. Choosing between something and nothing is an unacceptable alternative."

At Meyers' recommendation, the board approved the six programs approved by the Health Advisory Committee, as well as Heritage, with an amendment from Fraser that schools offer two programs from the six. Chairwoman Ruth Jordan and board members Toya Hampton-Green and Ann Oplinger voted "no."

It actually could turn out to be a coup for Heritage, with schools that had abandoned its model as a standard now looking for a second offering for parents and students.

So the kids can't blame Jesus or Mr. Kotter anymore for cock-blocking their Saturday night. Starting this fall, the choice is up to mom and dad.


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