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Sex Education Is More Than Facts

Although all states require sex education in one form or another for students in public schools, the issue still is controversial. But compared with the situation until recently in Edmonton, the U.S. seems positively enlightened ("Abstinence sex education doesn't work. It teaches lies to ill-informed virgins," The Guardian, Jul. 15).  

Even the most prudish person must admit that providing false information to scare students from having sex is indefensible. Why the Edmonton Public School board adopted such a curriculum provided by the Edmonton Pregnancy Care Centre is beyond me. Fortunately, a complaint filed by the mother of a Canadian student put an end to the use of the curriculum.

Yet I wonder how much false information is being presented to students in this country.  While the teen birth rate has fallen to its lowest level since data collection began, the U.S. still has the highest teen birth rate in the industrialized world, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Moreover, teens are disproportionately affected by sexually transmitted infections.  If teachers were allowed more freedom to address issues of concern to their students, perhaps the results would be different.

"Medical accuracy" is the term used most often in state laws about sex education.  But this requirement is only the start of what I believe is needed.  Students can be taught basic facts about sex without getting answers to their more personal questions. It's here that teachers find themselves in a delicate position. They want to help their students, but they feel constrained by state law and board of education policies. As a result, students are shortchanged.  It takes a very brave teacher to deal frankly with what is on the minds of students.

For example, if a minor confides in a teacher about a sexual issue, is the teacher legally obligated to reveal what was said to parents or school officials?  I'm not talking now about sexual or other physical abuse.  In California, all teachers are "mandated reporters." But what about other genuine sexual concerns?  To whom can a student turn in such a situation if what is said is not treated as privileged information, such as between attorney and client?  Would most teachers feel comfortable in that role if they were immune from prosecution?  These are questions that need to be answered as part of any sex education curriculum.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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