Middle school students in Charleston won’t be learning about birth control or healthy relationships, thanks to a decision from school board members who are worried that will lead them to start having sex.
When the Charleston County School Board voted this week to approve a new version of its middle school sex education curriculum, it decided to exclude an appendix with information about how to tell a partner you don’t want to have sex as well as information about STDs, and HIV and qualities of healthy and unhealthy relationships. This appendix was recommended by the district’s health advisory committee.
Students would have learned about some of these issues through role-playing games. But according to The Post and Courier, board member Tom Ducker thinks those activities downplay the seriousness of the issue and encourage students to have sex. “And I don’t think most middle schoolers are even thinking about sex,” Ducker added.
The data says otherwise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 40 percent of South Carolina high school youth reported having sex and 6 percent of those surveyed had sex before age 13. In 2010, 50 percent of all pregnancies in the state were unintended, and the teen pregnancy rate was 59 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 years old— both slightly higher than the national numbers.
One of the role-playing games included in the appendix involves a same-sex couple, who are both lesbians, which helps dispel the myth that two women in a relationship shouldn’t have to worry about STDs. Other role-playing games feature a bisexual partner and a gay partner, two gay men, and two straight people. In each activity, the partner is coached on how to say no to sex. The straight woman’s decision not to have sex is unrelated to concerns about STDs, compared to the same-sex couples’ scenarios.
Then, the appendix goes through games to quiz kids on how they can contract HIV and STDs and to dispel some myths about them, such as the idea that oral sex does not put you at risk for STDs. The students are asked to name high-risk behaviors, such as unprotected sex. There is also an explanation of different types of birth control, with emphasis on abstinence as the safest way to prevent pregnancy and STDs. Male partners are encouraged to help female partners pay for birth control if a couple chooses to have sex.
But the fact that the role-playing activities acknowledge the existence of bisexual, lesbian, and gay people apparently didn’t sit well with board members, who called the appendix “offensive.”
Many other states have also resisted making sex education materials LGBTQ-inclusive. In Arizona, for example, educators can’t “promote” a “homosexual lifestyle” or portray gay people in a positive light when teaching kids about HIV. And in Oklahoma, teachers are mandated to tell students that “homosexual activity” is “responsible for contact with the AIDS virus,” according to the Guttmacher Insitute.
Eme Crawford, the director of communications and learning for the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network, disagrees with the board’s assessment that talking about sexual health is offensive.
“I find it ‘offensive’ that the local school board is ignoring the recommendations of the local health advisory committee by removing critical information about contraceptives, role-playing games on abstinence HIV/AIDS prevention, and mentions of bisexuality and a lesbian relationship,” Crawford said in a statement to ThinkProgress. “I find it ‘offensive’ that we would withhold evidence-based and age-appropriate information from young people.”
“I find it ‘offensive’ that we would withhold evidence-based and age-appropriate information from young people.”
Crawford added that high school is too late to start talking about pregnancy prevention because many teens are already sexually active.
The board also rejected discussion of healthy relationships. For example, the students were to discuss characteristics of healthy relationships, such as open communication, trust, equality, having shared interests, and managing conflict well. The students would also learn that controlling behavior, extreme jealousy, isolation from friends and family, and pressure to do things you don’t want to do are characteristics of unhealthy relationships.
These are relevant discussions for teens. According to the 2015 CDC survey, 8 percent of South Carolina high school youth said they experienced physical dating violence and 7.6 percent said they experienced sexual dating violence in particular. Nationally, the percentage of students reporting this violence is a little higher, at 9.6 and 10.6 percent of high school youth, respectively.
April Borkman, a member of the district’s health advisory committee, told ThinkProgress that the influence of Heritage Community Services — which designs a wellness textbook and abstinence-focused curriculum for the district — is probably one factor in why the appendix was rejected.
But one of the bigger problems for comprehensive sex education advocates in the state is South Carolina’s ironically named 1988 Comprehensive Health Education Act.
This law does not allow instruction “concerning sexual practices outside marriage or practices unrelated to reproduction except within the context of the risk of disease.” Under the law, abstinence must be emphasized and students must be taught about contraception in high school. Challenges to the law have been unsuccessful so far.
That means it isn’t just Charleston middle school students who are missing out on key information about pregnancy prevention. The majority of middle school students across the state aren’t being taught about STD and HIV prevention. According to a 2013 report on sex education in the state, 66 percent of districts participating in the report did not teach students anything about STD and HIV prevention in middle school.
Borkman said she hopes to “pare down” the appendix and resubmit it in November.
“Personally, I don’t want to do it, but these are baby steps,” Borkman said. “Right now, there is no discussion of birth control.”