Sex education in Georgia: Failing the grade and students

Andrea Swartzendruber, a postdoctoral fellow in the Behavioral Sciences and Health Education Department at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, takes on sex education in Georgia. Sex ed is a course that ought to be health based, but often is influenced by politics and ideology.

Her research focuses on adolescent sexual health and reducing HIV and STI disparities. She has 18 years of experience in HIV and STI research and prevention programs, including six years as a public health advisor in the Global AIDS Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She earned her doctorate in Reproductive, Perinatal, and Women’s Health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In 2010, she authored a commentary published in the Journal of the American Medical Association calling for a national sexual health strategy.

By Andrea Swartzendruber

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new report showing that more than two-thirds of Georgia schools fail to teach all of the recommended sexual education topics.

Even relative to other Southern states, education about condom use was particularly low in Georgia, according to the CDC report. Perhaps this is no real surprise, however, given the CDC recently announced that Georgia ranks fourth in the nation for syphilis and ninth for Chlamydia. Georgia also ranks fourth for HIV diagnoses and 13th for teen pregnancies.

Georgia law mandates that sexual and HIV education emphasize abstinence until marriage, but it does not preclude providing students with comprehensive knowledge and skills for avoiding sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. Local school systems decide how and what information to share.

Tavonne Johnson answers questions from students during a middle school sex education class at Stephenson Middle School in DeKalb County. DeKalb uses a comprehensive- based curriculum known as FLASH, which is endorsed by healthcare advocates. The school system dropped the controversial, abstinence based curriculum know as "Choosing the Best" nearly 10 years ago after parents criticized the program fro not fully informing students. Fulton County is now considering adopting the "Choosing the Best" program. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Students ask questions during a middle school sex education class at in DeKalb County. DeKalb uses a comprehensive-based curriculum. DeKalb dropped  “Choosing the Best” nearly 10 years ago after parents criticized the program for not fully informing students, but it remains in use in many other districts. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Despite a consistent need for sexual education across the state, what students in Georgia get is anything but.

For example, DeKalb County schools use an age-appropriate, comprehensive sexual education curriculum designed to support students to make healthy decisions: abstain from sex, use protection when they do have sex, seek health care when they need it, communicate effectively with their families, and respect others’ decisions not to have sex. The curriculum adheres to the Characteristics of Effective Sex Education Programs and is aligned with the National Health Education Standards for Sexual Health and the National Sexuality Education Standards.

In contrast, roughly half of Georgia school systems use the controversial “Choosing the Best” sex education curriculum which teaches students the risks of condom use rather than the importance of using condoms consistently and how to use a condom correctly.

Bartow County uses the “Choosing the Best” curriculum and specifically bans providing students with information about where they can acquire condoms and family planning counseling and services.

“Lack of effective sex education can have very real, very serious health consequences,” said Stephanie Zaza, director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health.

Major professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Public Health Association, support abstinence but also emphasize that young people need accurate and comprehensive sexual education to prepare them for responsible decision-making. The vast majority of parents also support teaching comprehensive sexual education in schools.

A focus on health can serve as a unifying goal amid the politics and polarization that often surround public discussion of sexual education. Positive and respectful relationships, prevention, and wellness are goals everyone can agree on.

Abstinence is a healthy choice for young people that should be emphasized and supported. However, no one advocates lifelong abstinence, and abstinence intentions among young people often fail and change. Students need information and skills to prepare them for a lifetime of health.

The evidence about what works is clear.

Data show that abstinence-only curricula do not delay sexual debut or reduce sexual risk behavior. In fact, evidence of potential harm exists. Studies show that abstinence-only education may deter sexually active adolescents from using contraceptives, increasing their risk of STIs and unintended pregnancy.  In contrast, comprehensive sexual education curricula delay the age at first sex and decrease sexual risk behaviors. Moreover, teen pregnancies are 50% less likely among students who receive comprehensive sexual education as compared to students who receive abstinence-only education.

All Georgia students, regardless of zip code, should receive fundamental knowledge and skills to prepare them for a lifetime of health.

The state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth are at disproportionate risk for HIV and other STIs and experience high rates of harassment, dating violence, and sexual violence. These students would particularly benefit from inclusive comprehensive sexual education that supports their health and development.

Failing to provide comprehensive sex education threatens students’ health by withholding potentially life-saving information. As state statistics attest, teaching abstinence until marriage is not sufficient. Georgia should adopt a sexual health approach that supports abstinence but prepares students to protect their health when they do become sexually active.

 

Reader Comments 0

25 comments
Noehl Bingham
Noehl Bingham

I see fewer amounts of schools providing proper sex education all over the United States. Even though the teen birthrate is dropping, we should still be informing students about the dangers of not having safe sex. It can potentially put the students in danger...

Christ-mas
Christ-mas

"...but it does not preclude providing students with comprehensive knowledge and skills for avoiding sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy..."

The only 100% guarantee to not get a sexually transmitted disease or get pregnant is to abstain. When will we get this?! Remove any discussion about the moral implications has contributed to this mess.  Constantly bombarding kids with sex in tv shows, movies and media in general has led to these problems.  Start denouncing these practices and provide "comprehensive" knowledge about the only sure way of protecting against disease and pregnancy is still the cure.  Otherwise, give em condoms and tell them that acting like an uncontrollable animal is ok.  But then don't curse the darkness when it occurs.




RayHarris
RayHarris

Not only does Georgia not offer much needed sex education in school, they are reducing access to treatment by reducing the number of health departments that offer diagnosis and treatment.  If these policies continue, Georgia can become number one in STI and HIV. If that the goal? 

Jmand65
Jmand65

My daughter's class (MATURE program in Rockdale) was asked by the teacher to raise hands how many were sexually active.  When very few raised their hands, the teacher expressed disbelief and said they knew that most of them were sexually active.  Instead of the abstinence they were supposed to teach, they taught that class they were expected to be sexually active.


It is not just the curriculum that matters, it is also the teacher, the teachers beliefs and the training.  


You can have the best curriculum in the world but but you also must have the support of the system administration, the school administration and the actual teacher.

eulb
eulb

@Jmand65  "...raise hands how many were sexually active."

It's hard to imagine a teacher asking that.   Even if the teacher's hunch is right, students should not be expected to publicly announce their sexual activity by raising their hands. 

redweather
redweather

@eulb @Jmand65 I see that question as a very good conversation starter.  In this case, the teacher no doubt knew that by 17 almost half (48%) of all teenagers in this country are sexually active. If only 25% of the students raised their hands, the follow-up question would be, "So why are half of you unwilling to raise your hand?" It could be a privacy issue, but I would bet those reticent teens are uncomfortable talking about sex.  And that's the rationale for a sex-ed class. Teachers are not trying to indoctrinate their students, they are trying to encourage a conversation that can help demystify the many things about sex that young people don't know how to talk about. The deep south leads the nation in teen pregnancies. Part of that is because this is the Bible Belt. But part of it is because young people in the south are having sex (and getting STDs) because they are ill-informed or not informed at all. 

eulb
eulb

@redweather If the teacher said, "raise your hand if you feel comfortable talking about sex," that would be appropriate, might generate some laughter, and would probably set students at ease. 

eulb
eulb

Question:  In sex education classes, do instructors inform students of criminal laws regarding sex?  Do they make sure students know the age of consent, laws about statutory rape, molestation, abuse, ... and how to seek protection if they are in danger?   I know that this is not the primary purpose of sex education, but I'm wondering whether it's included in Georgia's sex education curriculum or any other part of students' education. 


Compare to driver education, which not only teaches teens how to operate a car, but laws regarding legal age, rules of the road, etc.

CSpinks
CSpinks

Of course, parents' teaching their own kids about sex is the preferred way to go but epidemiological data suggest that it's not being done.


So how about local school systems' partnering with their respective local health departments' health education professionals in handling this delicate subject in public schools?

HILUX
HILUX

Notice how the adjective "controversial" gets regularly applied to ideas or initiatives not conforming to liberals' beliefs?

But never the other way around.

redweather
redweather

@HILUX Do you have anything to say about the topic? Or do you just like to make tiresome comments about "liberals' beliefs"?

HILUX
HILUX

Welcome to the AJC, where liberal bias is more than tiresome.

redweather
redweather

@HILUX Once again, do you have anything of substance to add to the discussion?  (didn't think so)

HILUX
HILUX

There can't be a rational discussion of this or any other issue framed in so biased a manner. You know that, but choose to ignore it.

As usual.

Starik
Starik

Shouldn't there be some mention of the DeKalb middle school teacher who rented out his supply closet for sex education purposes?  Hands on education!

Travelfish
Travelfish

Should sex education be about the tiny proportion of the population, two or three percent at most, in the category of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?

Isn't the author just another culture warrior with an agenda?

anothercomment
anothercomment

Estimates are 10% of the population are Gay!! Wake up!

HILUX
HILUX

The CDC estimate the gay population at less than 2%. But dream on.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Travelfish

This is impossible to determine accurately, given the stigma for many people in announcing they are gay. 

Hillary's Emails
Hillary's Emails

Who are you kidding? These days the opposite is true, especially among the politically correct young.