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With final agreement on the state budget, lawmakers have pent-up bills they want to get through before they go home for the year. Some of those bills could be controversial.
By Rose Hoban
A bill that would allow loosened standards for sexual and reproductive health education and could allow for the return of abstinence-only education in schools made its way through a House committee Tuesday and is headed to the floor of the House of Representatives.
Senate Bill 279 originally created new standards for licensing counselors. But with new language added during the hearing, the bill could whittle away at some of the standards introduced under the 2009 Healthy Youth Act, which created a vetting process for sex education in North Carolina schools.Before passage of the act, schools were required to provide abstinence-only education. But the law created a comprehensive sex education curriculum that includes information about condoms and contraceptives, as well as abstinence. The Healthy Youth Act requires that instructional materials be “based on scientific research that is peer-reviewed and accepted by professionals and credentialed experts in the field of sexual health education.”
However, the bill headed to the House floor would allow for almost any “expert” to sign off on a sex education curriculum.
At the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Chris Whitmire (R-Rosman) said the pool of people who could create curricula was “too narrow.”
“The solution is to address the very narrow pool of people who can approve the curriculum in the first place and broaden it out,” he told the committee.
Whitmire said he wanted to give local school boards the ability to create sex education curricula that “better reflect the values of a community, stuff like Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family,” referring to the conservative Christian group that has long advocated for abstinence-only education in schools.
Rep. Paul Stam (R-Apex), who has challenged North Carolina’s sex education standards in past sessions, said he agreed the field of experts in the Healthy Youth Act was too narrow.
“If you look at what these people teach, a lot has to do with adolescent psychology, biology, medicine, human anatomy and things like that that are very relevant,” Stam said. “But the current statutory language is so narrow; it’s just a tiny group of people … who tend to be on the eccentric side.”
Not only abstinence-only
After the passage of federal welfare-reform legislation in 1996, abstinence-only education got a spending boost of federal dollars that required that curricula “not promote contraception and/or condom use.” Over the course of a decade, about $1.5 billion in federal dollars was spent on abstinence-only programs.
States, including North Carolina, jumped on the abstinence-only bandwagon.
But research into abstinence-only education found that many programs did not accomplish intended targets of reducing teen pregnancy and preventing teens from acquiring sexually transmitted infections. Instead, researchers began to find that combining abstinence education with information about contraception and condom use lead to safer behavior by teens, and HIV prevention messages lead more young people to use condoms more consistently.
Nonetheless, when the General Assembly passed the Healthy Youth Act in 2009, only a handful of Republicans crossed the aisle to vote with the majority Democrats to pass the bill. Since then, there have been several efforts to pare down the bill.
“Knowing the history of sex education in North Carolina, there’s absolutely a hidden, or not so hidden, agenda, especially when you listen to some of the things said in committee,” said Elizabeth Finley, a spokeswoman for SHIFT NC, a nonprofit that works to reduce teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections.
Finley said committee members revealed a desire to reintroduce abstinence-only education into classrooms.
“I think one of the things that’s important for people to know is that before the Healthy Youth Act existed, lots of schools used outside speakers who, for example, compared girls who were sexually active to chewed-up candy,” she said.
Finley described one educator who would take a trash can from the corner of the classroom and dump it on a desk, comparing kids who had sex to the garbage.
“Many of the speakers had shame-laden messages that don’t offer anything in the way of health education,” she said. “The Healthy Youth Act helped weed out a lot of those activities, a lot of the outside speakers, and put the focus on well-vetted health information.”
Senate Bill 279 would also mandate that sex education curricula add information about sex-trafficking awareness and prevention, including collaborating with “law enforcement with expertise in sex trafficking.”
Rep. Dennis Riddell (R-Snow Camp), who described that portion of the bill, said the bill was only appearing at the very end of the lengthy session because it took time to find a suitable bill to attach the language to.
Even as he acknowledged the recent drops in teen pregnancy rates, he also said he didn’t believe the state’s sex education went far enough.
“The sexually transmitted disease ratio is still going out of the top,” he said. “You’re dealing with children and the potential for them to contract a life-long disease.”
However, a look at the rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia, which Finley said are the diseases most affecting teens, finds that the rates have remained the same or drifted slightly downward.
“It’s hard to tell if there’s any changes in the number of people who have STIs or if it’s just better testing, or are health departments doing better outreach and finding more cases,” Finley said. “But there is no evidence whatsoever that promoting or increasing condom usage increases STI rates.”
Stam, Whitmire and Riddell ran into opposition from members of their own caucus, including Rep. Leo Daughtry (R-Smithfield), who argued that the language was so vague it might allow for someone with a credential in a completely unrelated field to sign off on the curriculum.
Stam offered a compromise in which he would draft an amendment that would make the language about curriculum consultants less vague and run it once the bill reached the House floor.
After the bill passed on a voice vote, education officials expressed concern that the changes would be difficult to implement by next school year. Any changes would have to go to the state board of education before being implemented, they told Riddell.
“We’d need to see the amendment so that we could tell you how soon and how long it would take. If the amendment fits into the current reality and structure, then it’s going to be easy to implement,” said Rachel Beaulieu from the the State Superintendent’s office. “If the amendment upsets the apple cart, then it’s going to be more difficult.”
“Plan on the apple cart being upset,” Riddell told her.