Facing pressure from multiple directions, the Charleston County school board isn’t ready to approve a new comprehensive sexual education curriculum that teaches both abstinence and effective contraceptive use.
Members of the school board’s Strategic Education Committee were originally scheduled to review an evidence-based, sex-education curriculum called “Making Proud Choices!” on Tuesday on the recommendation of the district’s health advisory committee.
But after a meeting Thursday between new superintendent Gerrita Postlewait, physical education and health coordinator Dave Spurlock, and school board member Kate Darby, the Strategic Education Committee decided to pull the discussion of Making Proud Choices! from Tuesday’s agenda.
The 1988 Comprehensive Health Education Act requires public schools to teach sexual and reproductive health education, but in Charleston, rarely do board members, parents, educators and medical professionals agree on how it should be taught.
Supporters of Making Proud Choices!, for instance, say the curriculum arms teenagers with essential information to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Its detractors claim the curriculum simply encourages sexual activity among minors.
The Charleston County School District currently offers five board-approved abstinence-based sex education curricula. Making Proud Choices! also emphasizes abstinence in addition to effective condom and contraceptive use.
The curriculum consists of eight modules. The first focuses on students’ goals and dreams, and how risky sexual activity can interrupt future plans. In the following lessons, students learn the consequences and causes of unintended pregnancies, STDs and HIV infection. Through various role-play activities and other exercises, they practice refusing unsafe sexual behavior and openly discussing their feelings if they’re being sexually pressured.
Most teachers rely on the human sexuality supplement to the state-approved health textbook to teach sex education, said Christine Beyer, an associate at the S.C. Department of Education. However, state law also allows school districts to use other curricula and appoint a community-run health advisory committee to help choose those materials. The 13-member committee, made up of students, teachers, clergy and medical professionals, is tasked with reviewing the curricula and making recommendations to the district school board.
Under state law, the curriculum must emphasize abstinence until marriage, and for high school students, explain various methods of contraception. Schools are expressly forbidden from distributing condoms and contraceptives, and teachers are barred from mentioning “alternate sexual lifestyles” except in the context of STDs. Health instructors can choose which curriculum they use and parents have the right to exempt their children from any sex education class.
‘We were rushing’
This isn’t the first time school board members have ignored recommendations from the district’s health advisory committee.
Five years ago, the board agreed to allow schools to teach abstinence-only curriculum from Heritage Community Services, despite the health advisory committee’s 9-1 recommendation against it. In October 2013, the health advisory committee voted to recommend adding Making Proud Choices! to the districts’s list of approved sex-education curricula, but the Strategic Education Committee tabled it.
“The school board will oftentimes take the recommendations of their committee and just kind of run it through,” Beyer said. “It’s a little unusual the board would not approve what they recommend.”
This past May, the health advisory committee again voted to recommend Making Proud Choices! for use in grades 8 through 12 in Charleston County Schools. This time, the vote was unanimous. Members of the health advisory committee and representatives of Medical University of South Carolina’s EMPOWERR, a drug and HIV prevention program for minority teenagers, introduced Making Proud Choices! to board members at a Strategic Education Committee in July.
The meeting drew several opponents of the curriculum, many wearing “Vote ‘No’ to MPC” stickers on their shirts. The three-member Strategic Education Committee, which includes Chris Collins, Chris Staubes and Darby, moved to address the curriculum at a later meeting once they had more time to review the materials.
“I want to make sure we’re presenting the best options for our students and our parents and our teachers, and I feel like we were rushing this a little bit,” Darby said. “We need to step back a little bit and let the superintendent share her vision and move forward.”
A CCSD spokesman noted the superintendent doesn’t have the authority to approve or make changes to the district’s sex education curriculum, but he said Postlewait wants to ensure parents have a say in what their children are taught.
“They agreed they want parents to be able to exercise options when it comes to the delivery of the state’s mandated sex ed. curriculum,” said Daniel Head, director of CCSD’s Office of Strategy and Communications. “It’s a very sensitive topic for a lot of people.”
A ‘very effective’ curriculum
Several S.C. school districts have approved Making Proud Choices! in the past, including Anderson School District 3, Richland County School District 1, and Spartanburg School District 3, according to a 2013 report by the Columbia-based New Morning Foundation.
“If you look into the literature about Making Proud Choices!, it is very effective,” Beyer said. “But it is intended for a certain group of young adults.”
Making Proud Choices!, developed by renowned public health researchers Loretta Sweet Jemmott and her husband, John B. Jemmott III, was originally designed for vulnerable, minority adolescents in community-based settings, rather than for a general school audience.
To ensure the curriculum complied with state law, April Borkman, the program coordinator for EMPOWERR, voluntarily worked with the district’s health advisory committee to modify the Making Proud Choices! manual. Her revisions strengthened its pro-abstinence message and excised or replaced passages critics of the program found objectionable. Through her work at EMPOWERR, Borkman has used Making Proud Choices! to teach sex education to high-risk teens for the past 10 years.
“HIV, STDs and teen pregnancy are all a real problem here,” she said. “They’re coming to us and they don’t know the basic information they need to protect themselves.”
Statistics show South Carolina’s teenage pregnancy and STD rates consistently rank among the highest in the nation. Nearly 20 percent of S.C. middle school students and more than half of S.C. high school students reported having sexual intercourse, according to a 2011 statewide Youth Risk Behavior Survey. And condom use has declined significantly among the state’s high school students – from 67 percent in 2005 to 58 percent in 2011.
Based on these numbers, it’s clear abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work, Borkman said.
“I want to see our teens succeed and do well. I want to see us producing citizens who are going to go on and do wonderful, great things: get an education, open businesses, become doctors, become lawyers, become public health advocates for others,” Borkman said. “If they’re protecting themselves now... then they can reach their goals and dreams.”
Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.