Prisoners of Love
Federal abstinence-only requirements handcuff state education official in teaching kids about sex.
By Elizabeth Zwerling 07/13/2006
Slides of male and female genitals with wet red, white, grey and black bumps, and open sores projected — three or four feet high — onto the large classroom’s makeshift movie screen. The 30 teens observing this part the four-hour workshop weren’t the only ones going, “eeeew!”
Before this backdrop, Kathi Frye, a grandmother and speaker for Yorba Linda-based Awareness, Inc.’s program, The Road Ahead, told the class about the more than 35 strains of the human papilloma virus, some of which cause cervical cancer; about warts, how they must be burned or frozen off; about genital herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis A, B, C and even D; about HIV and more.
Have sex before marriage and maybe you’ll get herpes, “the gift that keeps on giving,” the “forever friend,” she said. That’s if you’re lucky. Have sex outside of marriage and maybe you’ll end up like Frye’s son-in-law, who died of AIDS, though he got it from a blood transfusion. You don’t get to choose which STD you get, she told the high school students.
Safe sex? Frye uttered the words while broadly gesturing quote marks to dismiss the notion as oxymoronic. She spoke with the compassionate conviction of a woman on a mission to do the right thing — even if involves some emotional manipulation. Or fudging science, which is what Awareness and all abstinence-only organizations receiving federal funding do routinely, according to state officials.
While Awareness and other such abstinence-only organizations provide all or part of the sexuality education for a growing number of public schools up and down the state, abstinence-only education is illegal in all California public schools under a 2004 state law requiring sexuality and HIV prevention education to be comprehensive and scientifically accurate.
Complacency of local school officials, combined with federal support for abstinence-only education and an over-stretched state Department of Education, however, have allowed such abstinence-only programs to continue and even expand in public schools, said Phyllida Burlingame, a consultant on the subject for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
Districts that are out of compliance with this law may never be called to task, as the state Department of Education monitors only one-fourth of school districts annually to check their adherence to this law among 18 other educational laws. And unlike some high-profile education statutes, there are no stiff penalties for non-compliance with this one, said Sharla Smith, HIV/STD prevention education consultant for the department.
“Perception by school administrators is that [sex education] is so controversial, they don’t want to touch it. It’s easier to go with abstinence,” said Burlingame, who estimates more than half of the state school districts may be out of compliance with the sex education law.
Life’s many roads
The June program, taught by Frye and three other Awareness educators at a Fountain Valley high school, also included a section on teen pregnancy, one on decision-making and a final session on setting boundaries for the road ahead.
Awareness, Inc., has put on a similar program for all eighth graders in the Arcadia Unified School District for the past eight years. Both Pasadena and Los Angeles unified school districts teach comprehensive sex and HIV prevention education as per the law, according to state and local officials.
The presenter who followed Frye, while speaking about preventing pregnancy, neglected to note the discovery of latex. Karmel Humphrey, 29, wrapped up the event talking about setting boundaries with an equally passionate story of how he had been very focused on school and playing college football until a major injury set him off course. It was “a big bump in the road,” or a jump from “Road A” (abstinence) to “Road C” (sex before marriage), he said.
“My girlfriend would come over to study … I started getting bored. … We started studying sexology … anatomy. The first time I felt bad about it. … Each time it got a little easier.”
Until, boom! He was a 19-year-old dad who spent his free time shopping at Wal-Mart instead of going out with the rest of the kids his age.
He ended up marrying his girlfriend, getting a job with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and eventually fulltime employment as Awareness’ multimedia administrator.
He pulled his life together and is now the father of three. Still, Humphrey told the teens, good decisions yield good results before he handed out cards and invited students to take a virginity pledge. Or if it’s too late for that, a “secondary virginity” pledge would suffice to put them back on Road A.
Surveys given by the organization before and after such presentations have shown a sharp increase in the number of students pledging to remain abstinent until marriage: from 41 percent before to 66 percent after, on average, said Awareness’ Executive Director Eric Peterson.
A report published last year by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, however, found that virginity pledges only worked when made in small group settings — not when made by an entire class. When pledges were successful, “pledgers” delayed sex for an average of 18 months longer than their peers who had not pledged.
The study also found that pledgers — who were less likely to use condoms than their peers when they did have sex — had the same rate of sexually transmitted diseases but were less likely to seek medical testing and treatment.
Still, like other students observing the June program in Fountain Valley’s New Frontiers alternative community day school, 16-year-old Raina, who was allowed by school administrators to give only her first name, was moved by the program.
“[The program] really changed my views,” said Raina. “It made me realize … teenagers and kids should be careful in the choices they make.”
Trumping the law
Awareness, Inc., which defines itself as “one of California’s largest health and character education providers,” is in fact Southern California’s largest provider of abstinence-only education.
Educators for the 20-year-old program travel to hospitals, social service agencies, community groups and religious organizations offering workshops for adults and children.
The majority of Awareness’ clients today, however, are public schools. The organization has provided all or part of the sexuality and HIV/AIDS prevention programs for 57 Southern California public schools. Most are in Orange County, though West Covina and Whittier school districts, along with Arcadia, in Los Angeles County also contract with Awareness.
Bolstered by a share of more than $150 million annually in federal abstinence-only grant money, Awareness and similar programs across the nation provide their services to public schools on a sliding scale fee. Awareness charges $160 per hour, though many Southern California schools receive discounts. Similar programs in California include Teen Esteem and Await and Find, which are both based in the Bay Area.
Some of the very requirements that make these programs eligible for such federal grants, however, make them illegal in California public schools.
Although many of these programs, including Awareness, are secular, they blur the lines of science and morality with such assertions as sex outside of heterosexual marriage is physically and psychologically dangerous. The programs also fail to include information on contraception and resources for AIDS testing and treatment. These are among the curricular requirements for participation in the federal grant program, but their inclusion — or exclusion — is prohibited by state education law.
California is one of just three states, along with Maine and Pennsylvania, to reject the federal abstinence-only money, which since 1996 has totaled more than a $1 billion.
Still, while some local educators believe the federal program supersedes state requirements, “[This] is a case where state law trumps federal law,” Smith said.
No one’s looking
Senate Bill 71, the California Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Education Act of 2004, requires public schools to provide comprehensive instruction in the prevention, testing and treatment of the disease. Under the law, curriculum must include instruction in condom use as well as abstinence; instruction materials must be medically accurate and free from religious doctrine and bias.
The law does not require schools to teach sexuality education beyond disease prevention, but if the schools do teach it, they must include information on all FDA-approved methods of birth control.
SB 71, now part of the state education codes, actually consolidates 11 older laws that covered aspects of sex and STD prevention education.
Districts have been sluggish about complying with sex education laws for a variety of reasons, from ignorance to emphasis on other priorities such as bringing up English and math test scores, Burlingame said.
In a 2003 survey she conducted for the ACLU, Burlingame found that 85 percent of the state’s public schools were in violation of one or more laws governing sex education.
No follow-up survey has been done. “[But] I wouldn’t be surprised if more than half of our school districts are out of compliance,” Burlingame said adding that the state Department of Education should do a better job enforcing this law.
The process for checking a district’s compliance is known as a Categorical Program Monitoring for which the state Department of Education reviews programs and curriculum for compliance with up to 19 educational laws. Under the CPM program, school districts are up for review by California education officials, and some schools are never visited, Smith said.
Only two districts in the state, Manhattan Beach and Contra Costa, were investigated in 2005-06 for their adherence to the sex education law. Both were out of compliance.
Sex in a ‘vacuum’
In Arcadia, Charlene Mutter, the district’s middle school curriculum coordinator, said she brought her district into compliance by having health and science teachers fill in the blanks left by the Awareness program.
She said the decision to continue using Awareness following the passage of SB 71 was made in conjunction with parents, principals and teachers.
“[Awareness] provides the other perspective,” Mutter said. “The parents liked it.” So did the teachers, who felt uncomfortable talking about sex, she said.
“We talked about the issue related to the law — teaching not just abstinence. … The agreement with teachers is that they were responsible for the comprehensive part.”
Many districts that contract with Awareness have added a safer-sex component to their curriculum, taught either in-house or contracted out, to comply with the law, said Peterson of Awareness.
“We look at our program as a supplement to the curriculum. State law says if sex ed is going to be taught … it has to be comprehensive in nature. We’re not allowed to do comprehensive because of the federal money we receive,” Peterson said.
Adding in a comprehensive component on top of Awareness’ program, however, does not bring districts into compliance with state law, Smith said.
Although abstinence education is in fact a required component under state law, abstinence-only programs, by definition, teach their perspective “in a vacuum,” Burlingame said.
The section of the Social Security Act governing distribution of abstinence-only grant money awards this money only to programs that “have as their exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity,” and “teach that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects,” among other requirements.
There is no research that says sex is healthier in a monogamous relationship, or a heterosexual one, which is what being married in this country implies, Burlingame said.
“Schools can’t provide [four hours] of abstinence education downplaying condoms, then say later, ‘We’re going to fill in and have someone come in and talk about contraception.’”
Survey says …
Concerns with abstinence-only education are not limited to California. A 2004 report commissioned by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, titled “The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs,” found that more than 80 percent of the abstinence-only curricula used by two-thirds of federal grantees in 2003 contained false, misleading or distorted information about reproductive health.
According to the Waxman study:
• One abstinence-only curriculum erroneously states that in heterosexual sex, condoms fail to prevent HIV approximately 31 percent of the time.
• One curriculum states that 5 percent to 10 percent of women who have legal abortions will become sterile, when in truth the risk of sterility after the procedure used in most abortions in this country does not increase.
• One curriculum enforces stereotypes by teaching that women need “financial support” while men need “admiration.”
Still, there is a belief among school district administrators that parents want abstinence-only education. The idea has been exploited politically, but it doesn’t bear out in California.
A survey this year by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 78 percent of Californians prefer sex education programs that also teach children about obtaining and using contraceptives. More than 60 percent of the parents surveyed said they believed comprehensive sex education was at least somewhat effective in helping teens prevent unwanted pregnancy, and more than 70 percent favored it for STD prevention. Those numbers are slightly higher among public school parents, the survey found.
Locally Hector Delgado, whose 11- and 15-year-old sons attend Arcadia public schools, was unpleasantly surprised to learn the district uses an abstinence-only program.
“I think there’s nothing wrong with teaching children not to have sex until they can handle the consequences,” Delgado said. “But to teach abstinence without information on safe sex is ethically and morally irresponsible.”
With today’s media, Delgado said: “If you scare them … this generation is going to be less impressed by all of this.
“The other issue is if the school district hasn’t been following the law, they lose some moral authority.”
Kids at risk
And yet programs such as Awareness continue to thrive. Peterson, who started as a volunteer speaker for the program 12 years ago, has watched the organization grow from a “mom and pop” shop with volunteer speakers serving a few hundred students in the local community to its current incarnation. Last year Awareness employed 30 paid speakers and reached 27,000 adults and children.
“We could double that next year,” Peterson said. He is not terribly concerned with the reports that challenge his life’s work.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of abstinence-only organizations. Lumping them all together does all of us a disservice. … One statement people will make in regard to comprehensive sex education is that teens need to know how to protect themselves… Every teen who gets in a car is going to speed, but in driver’s ed class we don’t teach kids to speed safely because that’s not the expectation. … We don’t teach our kids to drink safely, to do drugs safely. … With sex, there are so many emotional and physical consequences beyond pregnancy. We’re trying to teach kids that there’s so much more to life than getting caught up in the moment. We want them to focus on their goals and dreams. If kids have sex, they’re at risk, period.”