Originally created 02/08/98

South Carolina to re-examine sex education in schools



AIKEN -- Diane Giddings says teaching sex education in South Carolina's public schools isn't the answer to suppressing the adolescent pregnancy explosion that has swept the state.

"(Teaching) only encourages experimentation," said Mrs. Giddings, chairman of the Aiken County Republican Party. "We don't need sex ed in the classroom, it's all over TV."

Conservatives like Mrs. Giddings are unhappy with the way sex education has been taught in the past decade and will back South Carolina lawmakers who want to reopen the controversial debate with bills to change the way the subject is presented in the classroom.

But while policymakers wrangle with the issue, thousands of children are becoming pregnant, having abortions and parenting before their time.

More than 11,400 teen-agers became pregnant in South Carolina in 1995, according to data collected from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Nearly half of those, 5,663, resulted in births to unmarried teens. There were more than 2,500 abortions, according to the data.

A bill introduced in the state Senate would limit the amount of class time spent on sex education and refocus instruction on abstinence.

And a bill lingering in the House could lead to an overhaul of state regulations governing all health lessons, including instruction on reproduction, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.

But on both sides of the debate, there is a clear message: If sex ed is going to be taught, the curriculum should reach far beyond the human anatomy.

Students should learn about the consequences of becoming a teen parent; they should be given assertiveness training as a tool for delaying sexual activity; and they should know what causes hormones to run wild and what to do about them.

Polls show most voters in South Carolina favor more sex education.

In a recent survey conducted by the S.C. Council on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, 81 percent of the responders agreed sex education should be taught in public schools, and 84 percent said instruction time required for sex education should be increased.

A sex educator for 20 years, Doris Hickson of Aiken, has always taught that abstinence is the only sure way to prevent pregnancy.

"It would be nice if we could leave it at that, but we can't," said Mrs. Hickson, whose main concern is giving teens the information they need to stay healthy and avoid pregnancy.

It makes sense to tell students why abstinence is a fine alternative to having sex, but others deserve the information they need to avoid pregnancy, Mrs. Hickson said.

"We're doing society an injustice when we turn a blind eye to reality. Teens are having sex," she said.

Arguments for and against sex education have become familiar in the past 30 years as schools nationwide have struggled with the issue.

Proponents say teen-agers will have sex no matter what adults tell them. So schools have a responsibility, they say, to teach students to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease.

Opponents of sex education say the current curriculum might promote sexual activity. They also say it undermines the authority of families to teach their kids about sex.

LeeAnn Harris, director of the Aiken County Teen Pregnancy Prevention Council, says most parents don't provide such teaching.

"If anything, teaching sex education can be a supplement to what's being taught at home," she said. "But most children aren't getting that parental input. A lot of parents today don't read to their children, help them with their homework or look at their report card. What makes people think these parents are teaching their kids about sex?"

Instead of playing the role of sex police, "legislators should go fill up some potholes," said Mrs. Harris said.

Advocates in South Carolina say they have evidence that sex education is working: a declining number of teen-agers getting pregnant in the past 10 years and a state survey that says fewer high school students are having sex now than in the early 1990s.

"When armed with information, most kids make smart choices," Mrs. Harris said.

Since the state ordered school districts to start sex education in 1988, the annual rate of pregnancy among girls ages 14 to 17 has dropped from 57 per thousand to about 43 per thousand, according to the South Carolina Council on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention.

The state's Youth Risks Behavior Survey shows a decline in the number of high school students who report they've had sex, from 68 percent in 1991 to 62 percent in 1997.

Supporters of sex education fear that tinkering with the system could reverse those trends.

But those who believe sex education is better left to the parents say teaching kids about contraceptives as state guidelines allow, is telling them having sex is OK.

South Carolina's public high school students must receive instruction in each of the health education topics allowed by law at least one time during their four years in grades nine through 12. Included in their comprehensive health education instruction, students must receive at least 12.5 hours of instruction in reproductive health and pregnancy prevention education.

Contraceptives can only be taught if they're presented under the guise of future family planning.

"You can't just say to them: `Don't do it, but if you're going to, use this or this,"' said Sen. Michael Fair, R-Greenville, sponsor of the Senate bill.

"We don't just say, `Here's a condom. Go to it.' We teach them about the risks and failure rates of contraceptives," said Polly Goldston, Aiken County's coordinator of health education."And by the end of class, students have decided not to use condoms because they won't work or birth control because there's this notion they'll get fat."

Topics of choice

Topics registered voters believed should be taught in earlier grades:

  • Sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDSSexual abuse, rape and sexual assault
  • Abstinence, Importance of responsible relationships, Physical and social growth changes associated with puberty/adolescenceReproductive anatomy
  • Preferred services

    Registered voters support the following services being provided in South Carolina public schools:

  • 71 percent: Referrals to agencies that offer abstinence counseling and education
  • 66 percent: Counseling about contraceptive methods
  • 62 percent: Education and information about contraceptives
  • 49 percent: Referrals to agencies that dispense contraceptives