The Battle To Bring Sex Education To The City With The Second Highest STD Rate In The Country

CREDIT: Kira Lerner

Rep. Wesley Bishop introduced legislation this term to bring comprehensive sexual education to New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS, LA — The city of New Orleans currently has the second highest sexually transmitted disease rate in the country, second only to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The city’s teenage pregnancy rate also dwarfs most other U.S. cities, and it’s the number-one reason teenage girls cite for dropping out of school.

Currently, Louisiana public schools teach abstinence-based sexual education and are prohibited from teaching students about contraception and STDs, but one state lawmaker is working to change that.

State Rep. Wesley Bishop (D) introduced a bill this session that would have mandated comprehensive sex-ed in New Orleans middle and high schools. The legislation ultimately failed to make it off the House floor, but Bishop said he will keep fighting to ensure that teenagers in New Orleans get the sexual education they deserve.

While moves to bring comprehensive sex education to the entire state of Louisiana have also failed, Bishop said he thought he’d have more luck pushing for change in just his own city.

“Since I figured it wouldn’t pass statewide, I thought we had a better chance to do it just in the city of New Orleans,” Bishop told ThinkProgress from his office at Southern University New Orleans, where he is associate vice chancellor for academic affairs. “We have a lot of exceptions in Louisiana law just for the city of New Orleans.”

The New Orleans City Council and School Board both supported his bill. He said he also got support from New Orleans residents — including teenagers — who often told him the legislation was necessary.

“If the rest of the state wants to stick their head in the sand and doesn’t want to move on it, that’s one thing,” he said. “But we think that this is what we need to try to move forward. So as a city we stepped out there to try to get that done. It did not work, but we’re going to try again and again and again. Because something has to give.”

Bishop has the support of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, which has advocated for a comprehensive sex-ed mandate on both the state and local level.

“There is no doubt that Louisiana youth deserve comprehensive sex education for all of the research that supports it,” Raegan Carter, senior director of external services Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, told ThinkProgress. “In terms of where to go from here, I know that Planned Parenthood feels that comprehensive sex education is needed. It reduces teen pregnancy rates, it reduces HIV infection rates, sexually transmitted disease infection rates and all of the research supports the need. We’ll continue to support organizations and legislators that see this as a public health crisis.”

The Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative Christian group, led the opposition to Bishop’s bill, arguing it would encourage teenagers to become sexually active. But Bishop said parents would be allowed to opt their children out of any sex education program.

“There were a handful of vocal opponents, but their arguments just didn’t make any sense whatsoever,” Bishop said. “Many of the folks who voted against it said ‘I think it’s the right thing to do, I just can’t take this vote home with me, especially during an election year.’ They thought it would be ammunition that their opponents would use against them. From a political point of view, I kind of understand why they did what they did. But from a practical point of view, it doesn’t make sense.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has spoken out against efforts to reform sex education in Louisiana. His administration slashed millions from the state budget for STD prevention and has blocked new Planned Parenthood clinics from opening. Jindal also signed a bill in 2014 that bars anyone affiliated with Planned Parenthood from teaching students about sexual health or family planning.

“When you have a governor of a state that’s really vocal in opposition to an issue, then it makes it really difficult to get that issue passed out of a state legislature, regardless of what it is,” Carter said. “In Louisiana, you have our governor who is opposing any type of mandate for sex education, so you have a legislative body that holds the governor’s position as well.”

Bishop agreed that Jindal could be doing a lot more to help his state out of its public health crisis.

“There are governors around the country now who support sex ed and their numbers are a whole lot better than the numbers in Louisiana,” Bishop said. “We should follow someone else’s lead, but unfortunately our governor decided not to do that.”

Bishop is the father of two sons, aged 5 and 17. He said he hopes the city embraces sex-ed reform by the time his younger son is in school.

“I want to make sure my son has that kind of information because when he gets to be 16 or 17 and decides to be sexually active, I want him to know the consequences,” Bishop said. “It would be great if we were able to have a father-son talk, but that might not be the case. But I at least want him to have the basic information that he needs to make proper decisions.”