Charleston County schools superintendent proposes parent options for sex education

Charleston County School District Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait has proposed giving parents a choice of different sex-education courses for their children. File

Some Charleston parents are less than thrilled that the school district asks local clergy to bless its sex education curriculum.

In fact, they’re raising … well, you get the idea.

Last week, the Charleston County School District solicited applications for its Health Advisory Committee, a panel that reviews and recommends materials used to teach students about reproductive health and contraception, among other things.

The online advertisement posted by the district specifically asked for local religious officials, and parents were livid.

They argued that stacking the board with clergy violates the separation of church and state, that it’s an attempt to impose religious morals on their children instead of teaching actual science.

Maybe so, but it’s not the school district’s fault.

The Legislature passed a law mandating the makeup of these committees more than 30 years ago. These 13-member panels must include two parents, two teachers, two students, two people not employed by the district, two health care professionals ... and three members of the clergy.

So more religious officials than anyone else.

“I don’t know why clergy need to be on there at all,” Jill Handegan told The Post and Courier’s Jenna Schiferl.

Yeah, having more preachers than physicians on a committee that reviews health lessons seems a little imbalanced. It smacks of compromise meant to appease Bible-thumping Upstate lawmakers.

You know, the people who still routinely try to block South Carolina classes from studying the theory of evolution and other so-called scientific “facts.”

Parents have a right to be concerned, but in truth preachers aren’t the problem ... at least not here.

Charleston County’s Health Advisory Committee has shown itself to be pretty reasonable in recent years. Actually, it has recommended curriculum the school board considered too racy.

A few years back, the committee approved a middle school health lesson outline that included passages on AIDS, same-sex relationships and pregnancy prevention techniques — including proper usage of (gasp) condoms.

Board members from both ends of the political spectrum thought that was a bit much, and perhaps it was. One former board member even found it offensive, claiming middle schoolers don’t think about sex.

Which only suggested it’s been a long time since he was in middle school.

Point is, the committee showed no proclivity to censor medical science, despite the state mandate to teach abstinence first. Which is appropriate, as long as everyone understands that not all teenagers are going to abstain.

Statistics suggest about half are sexually active by high school.

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Members of the clergy are just like everyone else — some conservatives, others socially progressive. Charleston County has done a decent job of maintaining an even keel. And no matter what the original intent of these committees, this hasn’t led to a substitution of Biblical moralism for actual science in Charleston.

Still, some parents want to change the committee membership. That’s understandable, but unlikely. State Rep. Lin Bennett says she’d be open to adding more doctors to the panel, and that’s about the best anyone can expect.

“Here, there have been no allegations that the ordained board members have caused problems with extremist views,” state Sen. Sandy Senn says. “However, to end the debate before it starts roaring like the transsexual bathroom debate, perhaps we can take King Solomon’s approach and find a preacher who is also a medical professional.”

School board members are reluctant to weigh in on such a touchy subject, but, having seen the committee’s recommendations, they aren’t too concerned. In fact, they question the logic of including random parents and students on the board. Anyway, schools have much bigger problems, they say. Fair point.

Bottom line is, schools don’t need to avoid sex ed, no matter how unpleasant it is to teach. The teen birth rate in South Carolina has dropped to about 22 out of 1,000 females annually, but, according to Fact Forward (formerly the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy), the state is still in the top 10 nationally for rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea.

And the last time the school board considered revising sex ed curriculum, officials from the Florence Crittenton program testified that some of their teenage clients believed they wouldn’t get pregnant if they had sex standing up.

Clearly, South Carolina teenagers need fact-based instruction. And most people, preachers and all, realize it would be immoral to abstain from that.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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