SisterReach Guest Column on Sex Education in the Commercial Appeal

My Thoughts: Current sex education curriculum inadequate for Tennessee’s students

Cherisse Scott, Special to The Commercial Appeal

One wouldn’t expect the policies of state and local governments to conspire against their most vulnerable populations. But as we start a new school year in Tennessee, it’s happening every day.

Although our students will receive education in important subjects such as math, language arts and science to prepare them as the workforce of tomorrow, they will lack a vital component to ensuring their future success — comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education.

Sixty percent of the high school students in Memphis have had sexual intercourse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Fifteen percent had sex for the first time before age 13.

However, zero percent of the teenagers in Tennessee’s public schools are allowed to receive medically accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education as part of their curriculum. The state’s current sex education curriculum, known as the Family Life Curriculum, is abstinence-based, meaning that the information that young people in grades 5-12 will receive will be age-appropriate iterations of the same message — abstinence only.

The result for Memphis? In 2012, Shelby County’s rate of unplanned pregnancy among teenage girls was above 30 percent. Thousands of teens are diagnosed with the sexually transmitted infections of chlamydia and gonorrhea each year. Further, the rate of new HIV infections in Shelby County is more than twice that of the rest of the state.

Despite the rampant rates of sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy experienced by Memphis youths, the Shelby County Schools board responded to this outrageous state policy by making its abstinence-only courses “opt-in” — meaning that students in both middle and high school have to get a parent’s signature to participate in this already-inadequate program. And the students who are allowed to participate in these subpar sessions will receive only six classes a school year.

My organization, SisterReach, has been unable to determine how many students have opted in to Shelby County’s program, but four out of the five middle and high schools in which SisterReach taught our proprietary Grade School Healthy Relationships Sex Education curriculum last year had less student participation than in the prior year. Understanding that our comprehensive sexual health presentation is now mandated to be abstinence-based instead of allowing us to teach comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education in schools situated in ZIP codes disproportionately affected with sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, teen pregnancy, rape and poverty, a reduction in student participation is alarming and proves cultural incompetence by our lawmakers.

The policy that bans Tennessee’s public schools from offering a comprehensive model of sexual health education creates a culture of fear for teachers who are trying to present accurate, responsible information to their students — students whose daily pubescent behaviors require more than abstinence education. So, what exactly is the “sex education” students will be learning? How will other issues related to sexual behavior which are of equal concern regarding student safety — such as sexual assault, teen dating violence, alcohol and drug prevention, sexting and social media sex crimes — be addressed? They will not.

The fact is that teenagers in Memphis and across Tennessee are having sex, whether by choice or by force, and they need information to protect themselves. The research is clear that comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education, which includes abstinence education like nonsexual intimacy strategies for young people to apply, is the best way to lower the rates of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, and to change youth behavior regarding unsafe sex practices.

Teens who receive sex education about both abstinence and contraception are more likely than those who receive abstinence-only education to delay sexual activity and to use contraception, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. Comprehensive sexual health education provides teens with the knowledge and tools to keep themselves healthy.

But don’t just take it from me. Ask the teens themselves. My organization conducted a recent series of focus groups with youths, parents and teachers working and living in low-income neighborhoods in Memphis.

In these focus groups, the complete results of which will be included in a report we will release this fall, nine out of 10 teens said they felt uncomfortable having conversations with their parents about sex. Likewise, 90 percent said they didn’t believe they had been given all of the information they needed to be fully educated about their bodies or sexual choices.

Our state is preventing schools from teaching age-appropriate, comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education to our children. The facts show that parents and teens are not having those necessary conversations. Our data also shows that many of the parents are ill-equipped with medically accurate information to share with their children or use for themselves. By avoiding the difficult conversations and limiting what they learn, all of us are setting our children up to fail — and in some cases, we’re setting them up for serious behavioral issues that can lead to illness or even death.

Tennessee’s current policy is not just inadequate; it’s downright dangerous to the health of our teens and young adults. But it’s not too late. A responsible next step for the Shelby County Schools board is to lead our state toward a healthier future by re-examining its flawed opt-in policy and supporting a resolution in favor of a comprehensive sex education curriculum. With the school board’s support, Memphis can demonstrate to state legislators the urgency and necessity of implementing comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education.

How many more teens will face an unplanned pregnancy, contract HIV or become a victim of sexual assault before we make this our priority?

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