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Talk of safe sex delayed until ninth grade
By JODY ALLARD
The recent unveiling of Federal Way Public Schools newly adopted AIDS/STD prevention curriculum for fifth and sixth-graders has parents and educators wondering how early is too early.
Piloted for the past two school years, The Great Body Shop is a two-part series educators applaud for combining a focus on literacy with state-mandated AIDS/STD (sexually transmitted disease) prevention curriculum.
But, with a curriculum that doesnt explore safe-sex options and methods of birth control until ninth and 10th grades, and continues to limit discussion of safe sex in high school, some local health officials say the district is hiding its collective head in the sand.
The series, adopted by the Federal Way School Board last summer, was chosen by the district for its readability. It introduces elementary school students to puberty, pregnancy, reproduction and AIDS/HIV, using illustrated pamphlets children can read themselves.
With our focus on literacy, we looked for a program that would stress literacy and meet those goals while meeting the state requirement, said district health and curriculum specialist Pat Smithson. Teachers like the format and they like that it is used as a non-fictional reading tool.
State law mandates that school districts provide annual AIDS/STD education for all students in grade five through 12. Prior to 1999, all grades in the district used the KNOW: HIV/STD Prevention Curriculum developed by the state office of the superintendent of public instruction. KNOW is still in use by the district for grades seven through 12.
AIDS prevention curriculum is required by law to teach students which behaviors are risk factors for HIV infection and methods to avoid such risk. The state does not specifically require that safe sex be included in school districts AIDS/STD prevention curriculum.
Although only 27 parents attended the three information sessions the district hosted in early October, Smithson says parents have repeatedly expressed their support for AIDS/STD prevention programs.
They are happy to know that its happening. They want their children to know these things, said Smithson.
While Smithson says parents fear that specific values or lifestyles will be promoted by the schools, the curriculum relies on medical explanations of heterosexual reproduction and intercourse, and teachers are instructed to refer questions pertaining to topics such as safe sex and homosexuality to parents and other trusted adults.
For fifth and sixth-graders, sex is explained in terms of human reproduction: A sperm mixes with an egg, which can result in pregnancy. AIDS/STD prevention is targeted at foregoing intravenous drug use and abstaining from sex prior to forming a long-term relationship, such as marriage.
We stress abstinence districtwide, and sixth-graders arent ready to hear about safe sex, Smithson said. We hope theyre not having sex. We get into that later.
A focus on abstinence continues through the junior high and high school curriculum. With an emphasis on the dangers of sex, the curriculum primarily explores the social and emotional implications of AIDS, rather than promoting safe sex.
They just barely get into condom use in the eighth grade. As the students get more mature, it is more discussed, said Smithson.
But, with kids experimenting with sex during early adolescence, there are dangers in programs that emphasize abstinence-only and the dangers of sex, said Robert Harkins, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of Western Washington.
All too often, they dont provide medically accurate information. For instance, they talk about condom failure rates instead of pointing out that condoms are 97 percent effective in preventing pregnancy and STDs, said Harkins.
Encouraging abstinence without also presenting a variety of safe-sex and birth control options puts kids at risk for unplanned pregnancies and STDs, argues Harkins.
Some kids, no matter how much you tell them about the power of abstinence, will still need that information to stay safe. So that means giving them information on contraception and giving them information on how to use condoms, said Harkins.
A study conducted in 1999 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta found that 38.6 percent of ninth-graders had engaged in sexual intercourse. By 12th grade, the number had skyrocketed to 64.9 percent.
According to data compiled by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Washington ranks second in the nation in pregnancy rates among girls aged 14 and younger. Five in every 1,000 girls 14 and under in Washington became pregnant in 1997.
Despite a 21 percent decrease in teen pregnancy among girls 15 to 19 years old from 1992 to 1996, 16,330 girls became pregnant in 1996.
Increased and enhanced use of contraception is responsible for the recent decline in teen pregnancy. When teens have access to the full range of reproductive healthcare services, including medically accurate sexuality education, they are more likely to make responsible choices about sex and sexuality. Anything less, is dangerous and irresponsible, said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in an April 24 statement.
Nationwide, parents agree. A study released Oct. 1 by the Sexuality and Information Council of the U.S. (SICUS) shows that parents across ethnicities overwhelmingly support curriculums that promote safe sex.
Eighty-one percent of parents surveyed said they favor sex education programs that teach young people about all aspects of sex and sexuality Ñ including how to use birth control to prevent unintended pregnancy and how to protect against STDs Ñ over programs that focus on abstinence-only and the dangers of sex.
Parents and guardians want their kids to receive a comprehensive approach to sex education that includes information about contraception and condoms to prevent unintended pregnancy and the spread of STDs,
as well as about abstinence, said Tamara Kreinin, president of SICUS. This poll demonstrates that the proliferation of unproven abstinence-only-until-marriage programs across the nation is completely out of step with the parents and guardians of our nations most vulnerable young people.
Still, the district maintains that its program, with its focus on abstinence, is what local parents want.
Most parents dont attend the preview sessions, Smithson said. Once they know what were teaching and how were teaching it, they feel comfortable.
Staff writer Jody Allard can be reached at 925-5565 and firstname.lastname@example.org