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Sex flaws

Are changes ahead for state sex education rules?



Do the sexual mores expressed by the following sentence jibe with your own? "In today's society there are generally no rigid rules covering what a person of good reputation should or should not do in all going out situations. One point, however, is still held definite -- that of abstaining from premarital sexual intercourse. Most young people recognize that standard, but are sometimes influenced to disregard it."

If you learned sex education from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, let's hope so. If not, well, let's hope you don't mind your reputation or those of your friends or family being denigrated in the status-conscious world of an eighth-grade classroom.

This "good reputation" message comes courtesy of the school district's curriculum, Family Living, Ethical Behavior and Human Sexuality -- more commonly called by its acronym FLEBHS (pronounced FLEE-bus). It's one of several messages that the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina cited as examples of what it says are either inaccurate or judgmental teachings from CMS sex ed.

The ACLU's state chapter sent CMS officials a copy of its findings late last week, just days before Rep. Susan Fisher was to file legislation seeking changes to the state's sex education guidelines. The two moves aren't otherwise related; the ACLU has found about three dozen school systems use what it believes are faulty curricula, says Sarah Harger, reproductive health coordinator with ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation.

Fisher, who planned to file the bill before Creative Loafing hits the streets, says the legislation in Raleigh would require public schools to teach abstinence-based, comprehensive sex education that includes information about sexual abuse risk reduction, medically accurate data and instruction on the effectiveness of all birth control methods approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"What we're trying to do with this bill is emphasize prevention," Fisher says. "We know how controversial abortion can be ... if we teach prevention early, we won't have to go through the difficult decision of deciding whether or not to have an abortion."

State law currently requires schools to teach abstinence-only curriculum that discusses contraception in terms of failure rates. School districts can teach more, but they must take additional steps, such as holding public hearings, before approving different curriculum. CMS has designed its own curriculum that, like state guidelines, teaches that safe, responsible sex only happens within heterosexual, monogamous marriages. The ACLU's Harger says those teachings contain inaccurate information and what she says are inappropriate judgments. Here are a few of her findings:

• A fourth-grade lesson on HIV/AIDS asks pupils to label as either fact or opinion statements such as: "A person can get AIDS by hugging or shaking hands," "[t]o avoid getting AIDS, you should not use public restrooms" and "HIV can be spread by coughing." Such statements, the ACLU says, should be labeled as false statements, not opinions.

• An eighth-grade lesson on contraception methods mentions Norplant, which has been discontinued.

• Teacher guidelines dictate that abortion, masturbation and homosexuality may be defined but not discussed.

A CMS spokeswoman didn't have a comment by deadline. Harger says the liberal civil liberties group isn't demanding changes; it's just bringing its complaints to local districts' attention. Any calls for change, she says, would likely come from local parents.

One such parent could be Kelly Reed Keeling, a NARAL Pro-Choice America volunteer who says current sex ed doesn't give kids the tools they need to protect themselves. "To me, it's very shocking that we're not doing all we possibly can to provide for the medical safety of our children," says Keeling, a former biology teacher at West Charlotte High School. "That's what incenses me." A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of youth risk behavior found that 46 percent of female students and 56 percent of male high school students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 2005 reported ever having had sexual intercourse, compared to 46 percent of female high school students and 48 percent of male high school students nationwide. Of sexually active students, rates of condom use were higher than the national average while use of birth control was lower.

North Carolina's teenage pregnancy rate is still among the highest in the nation. And, according to the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Coalition of North Carolina, more than 18,200 pregnancies in 2005 were among girls and women ages 15 to 19. Mecklenburg County contributed 1,584 teen pregnancies to that total.

Fisher says any changes to state sex education guidelines wouldn't change parents' ability to keep their children out of sex ed classes. She also says it wouldn't affect the state's ability to receive federal abstinence education grants, because the method would still be emphasized. Some places, most recently Wisconsin, have rejected such federal funds so they wouldn't be subject to federal rules.

Advocates of comprehensive sex education have sought changes for years, and each year they have been unsuccessful. Several groups are backing this year's bill, including Covenant with North Carolina's Children, a coalition of more than 160 trade associations and healthy and civil rights groups. Its relatively disparate members include the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Coalition of North Carolina, the Communities in Schools of North Carolina, the N.C. Association of Educators, the N.C. Council of Churches and the United Way of North Carolina.

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