(512) 657-8631 [email protected]

Amarillo Globe-News Web-posted Sunday, March 1, 2009

SAN MARCOS – When it comes to teens and sexuality education, ignorance isn’t bliss. It’s reckless.

Research shows that young Texans rate well above national averages on virtually every published statistic involving sexual risk-taking behaviors. In fact, Texas has one of the highest teen birthrates in the nation, with taxpayers spending more than $1 billion annually on teen childbearing.

Yet Texas is the poster child for the abstinence-only movement, receiving more federal funding for abstinence education than any other state.

Clearly, something is wrong.

We worked with the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund to find out what public schools actually teach in sex education classes.

Using the Texas Public Information Act, we obtained official policies, curriculum materials and other documents from nearly all of the state’s public school districts.

As health educators and as parents, we found the documents provided to us profoundly discouraging. You can read our findings at www.justsaydontknow.org, but the conclusion is clear: Texas is failing our families and youth. Our school districts are perpetuating a conspiracy of silence that robs young people of the reliable information they need to develop important life skills and make responsible, potentially life-altering decisions when it comes to sexuality and health.

Texas law requires public schools to emphasize abstinence but allows them to teach other information about sexuality, including contraception. Still, we found more than nine in 10 Texas school districts teach nothing about responsible pregnancy and disease prevention except abstinence.

Moreover, we found most abstinence-only programs commonly rely on fear, shame and stereotypes as instructional strategies. Many are also riddled with factual errors, misleading statements and gross distortions. Some even discourage the use of condoms by claiming they are virtually useless in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Such messages recklessly defy all reliable public health advice.

In August 2004, a Scripps Howard Texas Poll found that 90 percent of Texans support teaching students the importance of abstinence, as well as medically accurate, age-appropriate information about contraception and preventing STDs.

Our research showed one reason policy-makers aren’t hearing that message. More than 80 percent of school districts reported no formal recommendations from local School Health Advisory Councils. State law requires these councils to provide community input about sexuality education to local school boards.

Frankly, too many local school officials take the easy path by adopting abstinence-only policies rather than confront a vocal and militant minority demanding that students be kept ignorant.

How do we break this conspiracy of silence surrounding sexuality education? We offer just a few of our report’s recommendations here.

As a good first step, Texas lawmakers should require that information public schools teach about human sexuality be medically and scientifically accurate. The Legislature has failed to do so the past two sessions.

State law and curriculum standards should continue to emphasize the importance of abstinence. But they should also bar sexuality education classes from discouraging the use of condoms and other forms of contraception by sexually active people.

Texas should also join the 24 other states refusing to take federal Title V, abstinence-only funding. Recent major studies have shown that such programs are simply ineffective in changing the sexual behavior of teens. Our state’s high teen birthrate attests to that.

At the local level, school districts should fully engage local School Health Advisory Councils in developing policies that are truly based on community input and research on effective programs. It’s time they started listening to all parents in their communities, not just to pressure groups arguing that the solution to the problems of teen pregnancy and STDs is to keep young people ignorant.

David Wiley and Kelly Wilson are health education professors at Texas State University-San Marcos