Why is the state fooling around with sex education?
So the Charleston County School District settled a defamation lawsuit with a member of its volunteer Health Advisory Committee.
Diette Courrege Casey reported Friday that the committee member claimed a member of the school board called him untruthful, and he got $95,000 for his pain and suffering. We don’t know much more — even though it’s our money — because the settlement included a non-disclosure provision.
But the biggest revelation is that the school district has a Health Advisory Committee.
Why? Well, because South Carolina requires all school districts to set up a committee of volunteers to review and recommend curriculum for all sex education classes.
That seems odd. Why not a math advisory committee? Or one for English?
Funny you should ask.
It’s because math and English usually aren’t that controversial, but sex education is a bona fide political issue.
The law on this is quite specific. In fact, it’s so specific it reeks. This is the only committee the state requires school districts to set up.
The state states each district must have a 13-member advisory committee to select materials on reproductive health, family life and pregnancy-prevention education.
This committee must include two high school students, two teachers, two parents, two health-care professionals, two people not employed by the district — and three clergy.
Why does a committee picking out health care curriculum need more religious expertise than, say, medical expertise?
Uh, because it’s political.
Around the state, most of these committees meet infrequently, because there’s not a ton of new material to review.
But Charleston’s meets regularly and has been — surprise, surprise — a hotbed of controversy. This lawsuit is just the last straw. People close to the committee say it is a constant war between folks who want to teach health and those who want to teach abstinence-only, define marriage in conservative terms and bar any mention of homosexuality.
Three years ago, this became a huge fight for the district. The school board ignored the committee’s recommendation to discontinue use of material from Heritage Community Services, which offers an abstinence-only curriculum.
The district allows principals to choose from approved curricula. Some use Heritage, but most use something a little broader.
Some board members have said schools should offer both, so that parents get a say about what their children are taught.
That’s a much better idea than letting the state get involved.
Time for a change?
State Rep. Jenny Horne tried this year to update South Carolina’s sex education policies.
Horne, a Summerville Republican, thought she was being conservative. She only wanted to ensure that the state taught medically accurate courses. There are reasons for this: South Carolina ranks third nationally in terms of sexually transmitted diseases, and every year more than 6,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 get pregnant. It cost the state $200 million in Medicaid payments alone.
But some conservatives don’t want to talk about sex — well, unless Bill Clinton is involved.
Horne’s legislation went nowhere. But she’s not giving up. In fact, she thinks it may be time for a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s health education policy. She is not real sure why the state is mandating Health Advisory Committees stacked with a bunch of lay people deciding what can and can’t be taught to our kids. And it’s worrisome that the law drags kids into the fight.
“Since when did sex education become a political issue?” Horne says. “It shouldn’t be; it should be scientific.”
She’s absolutely right. But somewhere along the way, a bunch of old white men in Columbia decided that they — and their pastors — know what’s best for our kids.
Abstinence is a noble thing to teach, and most school board members will tell you there is certainly a place for it in health education. But sometimes you have to face reality — kids are going to fool around, and it’s better if they aren’t completely ignorant of the facts of life.
If lawmakers want to be ignorant, well, that’s their choice.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org