A new sexual education curriculum that would teach not only abstinence but also condom and contraceptive use drew heated discussion at a Charleston County School Board committee meeting Tuesday.
More than two dozen people – including parents, educators, health professionals, lawyers, and preachers – showed up at the Strategic Education Committee meeting to air their side of the debate on “Making Proud Choices!,” an evidence-based safer sex curriculum that the district is considering approving for grades 8-12.
Proponents, citing research and statistics, argued that Making Proud Choices! would discourage risky sexual behavior among already sexually active teenagers. Opponents of the curriculum, many wearing “Vote ‘No’ to MPC” stickers on their shirts, said otherwise.
“I don’t want my daughters hearing this and it doesn’t sound abstinence-based!” said Pastor Gordon Cashwell, before reading a passage from the curriculum on shopping for latex condoms. “I should have had the kids close their ears. Sorry.”
Then he held up a paperback copy of his own book on the coming apocalypse and pointed to a chart: “When prayer was taken out of school, sexually transmitted disease went up. Teen pregnancies went up. Maybe we need to look at that science.”
After 30 minutes of public discussion, the committee moved to address the curriculum at a full board meeting in August after they’ve had a chance to further review the materials. School board member Chris Collins, who sits on the committee, along with trustees Kate Darby and Chris Staubes, said he sympathized with some of the criticism.
“I think the problem is some of the materials and discussions are pretty graphic,” he said. “A lot of parents are concerned. They don’t want to have that conversation with their children at a young age and in that graphic detail.”
The Comprehensive Health Education Act, passed in 1988, was intended to standardize health and sex education instruction in South Carolina public schools. Under state law, high schools are required to teach at least 750 minutes of reproductive health and pregnancy prevention with a strong emphasis on abstinence and the “risks associated with sexual activity outside of marriage.” They’re forbidden from distributing condoms or other contraceptives, and barred from mentioning “alternate sexual lifestyles” except in the context of sexually transmitted infections.
As per state law, community-run Health Advisory Committees – made up of students, teachers, clergy and medical professionals – are tasked with reviewing sex education curriculum and making recommendations to district school boards – not that they always listen.
In 2010, the Charleston County school board agreed to allow schools to use abstinence-only curriculum from Heritage Community Services, despite the local Health Advisory Committee’s 9-1 recommendation against it.
Three years later, Charleston’s Health Advisory Committee recommended adding Making Proud Choices! to the districts’s list of approved sex-education curricula, but the board tabled it.
This past May, the committee again voted to recommend Making Proud Choices! for use in grades eight through 12, but this time, with modifications to the curriculum to placate concerns from those in the community who felt its abstinence message wasn’t strong enough.
“It certainly brings in a more up-to-date discussion, especially when it comes to anything on the internet – sexting, cyber-bullying and all of those types of things,” said Dave Spurlock, the district’s physical education and health coordinator, of the Making Proud Choices! curriculum. The district currently offers five board-approved abstinence-based sex education programs.
But none of those programs are what April Borkman would describe as “comprehensive sex education.” Although Making Proud Choices! emphasizes abstinence, it also teaches effective condom and contraceptive use to reduce the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Borkman, the program coordinator for Medical University of South Carolina’s EMPOWERR, a drug and HIV prevention program for minority teens, noted several, more conservative counties in South Carolina, including Berkeley and Laurens, already use versions of Making Proud Choices! in their schools.
She stressed the importance of medically accurate, comprehensive sex education. South Carolina’s teenage pregnancy and STI rates consistently rank among the highest in the nation. According to a 2011 statewide Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 19 percent of middle school students and 57 percent of high school students reported having sexual intercourse. And condom use has declined significantly among S.C. high school students – from 67 percent in 2005 to 58 percent in 2011.
“We have kids coming to our community groups outside of school who don’t understand how their bodies work. They don’t understand how a pregnancy occurs. They don’t understand how an STD can be contracted,” she said. “They come to our community groups begging for information because they’re not getting it in school or from their parents.”
Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.