We do a really lousy job of it.
In sex education classes, 94 percent of Texas school districts teach that abstaining from sex is the only healthy option for unmarried couples, and, in many cases, students are given misleading and inaccurate information about the risks associated with sex, according to a 72-page report released Tuesday.
Two percent of districts -- in a state that has the third highest teen birth rate in the nation -- ignore the subject completely, according to the study.
The two-year study, "Just Say Don't Know: Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools," was conducted by two Texas State University researchers and funded by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, the research arm of the Texas Freedom Network, which describes itself as "a mainstream voice to counter the religious right."
Researchers David Wiley and Kelly Wilson, who both teach health education, examined tens of thousands of lesson plans, student handouts, speaker presentations and other related documents obtained from 990 school districts, 96 percent of Texas' districts, through the Texas Public Information Act.
"Most of the mistruths share a common purpose, and a likely effect, and that is discouraging young people who might already be sexually active from using condoms, a message I find shocking as a professional health educator," Wiley said.
In the report, researchers documented at least one factual error in the materials received from 41 percent of the school districts. The study's authors found instances in which districts used what they called sexist, religious and shame- or fear-based techniques during instruction. The findings include:
On wearing condoms during sex, the Brady district has told teens, "Well if you insist on killing yourself by jumping off a bridge, at least wear these elbow pads."
The Edinburg school district policy states, "Students should be informed that homosexual acts are illegal in Texas and highly correlated with the transmission of AIDS."
And in a bit of fortuitous and not-coincidental timing, I got a piece of email shortly after this came out from State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and State Rep. Mike Villarreal, who have legislation filed to address some of these concerns. From the email:
SB 1076 and HB 1567 require abstinence curriculum that includes instruction on contraception to provide scientifically accurate information about contraceptives and methods of reducing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. SB 1076 and HB 1567 prohibit these school districts from discouraging contraception use by students who are sexually active. This legislation does not mandate that schools provide sex education, but if they choose to offer a sex education course, it prohibits them from providing inaccurate information.
"While it is true that abstinence is the healthiest choice for teens, we cannot close our eyes and pretend we do not have students that are sexually active. We must equip students with the knowledge necessary to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies," said Van de Putte.
"We have a responsibility to ensure that our children receive accurate information in the classroom, particularly when students' health is at stake," Villarreal said. "We're dealing with a myriad of problems in Texas as a result of our sky high teen pregnancy rates. We cannot allow our schools to provide erroneous information - the stakes are far too high."
Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Mark Strama filed legislation, Senate Bill 1100 and House Bill 1694, which they are calling the Prevention Works Act, which requires that school districts notify parents about the content of their children's sex education classes. Rep. Joaquin Castro's House Bill 741 and its companion, Sen. Rodney Ellis' Senate Bill 515, require health education to be comprehensive, age-appropriate and based on medically accurate information. "I know that sounds like a ridiculously minimal standard," says Ryan Valentine, deputy director of the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, "but it's not an inconsequential first step."
Texas gets more federal abstinence funding than any other state and has one of the highest teen birthrates in the nation, but an extensive new study shows that what students are learning in sexuality education classes is plagued by factual errors and other mistruths, distortions and stereotypes.
Just Say Don't Know: Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools, the largest study ever of what is taught in sex education classes, reveals that 96 percent of Texas school districts teach students nothing about responsible pregnancy and disease prevention except abstinence.
"Texas is failing families when it comes to sexuality education," said David Wiley, a health education professor at Texas State University-San Marcos and one of the co-authors of the report from the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund. "Our classrooms are perpetuating a conspiracy of silence that robs young people of the reliable information they need to make responsible life decisions."
Wiley and co-author Kelly Wilson, also a Texas State health education professor, analyzed thousands of pages of curriculum materials, district policies and other documents from nearly all of the state's more than 1,000 public school districts. Researchers obtained those documents through requests under the Texas Public Information Act sent to all of the state's school districts.
The report reveals that the abstinence-only programs that dominate Texas classrooms are littered with errors, mistruths, distortions and other serious problems that endanger the health and future of young people, TFN Education Fund President Kathy Miller said.
"Like most parents, I provide the moral and ethical guidance my children need on this sensitive subject," Miller said. "I also want sexuality education programs to encourage abstinence. But we must stop burying our heads in the sand about high teen birth and STD rates and make sure young people get the medically accurate information they need to protect their health and their futures."
The findings include:
- Community input is often a myth, with 81 percent of districts reporting no formal recommendations on sexuality education from state-mandated local advisory councils.
- 41 percent of school districts use materials with factual errors. Classes include grossly misleading information and discourage sexually active young people from protecting themselves, insisting that condoms are ineffective in preventing pregnancy and STDs.
- Shaming and fear-based instruction are standard strategies for teaching students about sexuality. Instruction often equates sex with disease, anti-social behavior and even death rather than focusing on the development of healthy attitudes students will need as adults.
- Instruction often promotes stereotypes and biases, including rigid and outdated gender roles as well as discrimination based on sexual orientation.
- Some districts betray the trust of families by forcing religious content with which parents might disagree on students during instruction on human sexuality.
"Young Texans overall rate well above national averages on virtually every published statistic involving sexual risk-taking behaviors," Dr. Wilson said. "Our research shows that many public officials apparently have decided that ignorance will protect these kids."