Simmer Down, Kids!

Sex-ed teachers want to know: How do you get hormones to listen to reason?

In fiscal 2006, Florida received $10.7 million in federal funds for abstinence programs. The state pitched in $3.5 million.

To qualify for federal funding, providers are supposed to adhere to eight guidelines — known as the A through H guidelines — that include teaching "that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of all human activity," that sex outside of marriage "is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects," and that "bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child's parents, and society." People who favor comprehensive sex ed find such assertions ludicrous.

Abstinence education came under attack after the release of several reports ordered by Congress. One found that "over 80 % of the abstinence-only curricula contain false, misleading or distorted information about reproductive health." Last April, a study by Mathematica Policy Research looked at the long-term effects of four abstinence programs and found that they "had no effect on the sexual abstinence of youth."

Naturally, abstinence proponents found fault with those reports and fired back with their own statistics. One analysis by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, asserted that for every federal dollar spent promoting abstinence, 12 are spent promoting contraception.

Then, this past December, the CDC announced that the teenage pregnancy rose 3 percent in 2006, following a steady 14-year decline.

Sixteen-year-old Brandy Smith offered a glimpse into the mind of a pregnant teenager. Smith says she once hoped to remain abstinent until marriage but took chances with her 21-year-old boyfriend because she was in love. "It wasn't just puppy love," she insists.

Smith knew about birth control. But she and her boyfriend thought a baby might even be nice. She didn't feel pressured at all. "He just made me feel so comfortable," she says.

The couple has since broken up but is on good terms. Now, the Department of Children and Families helps Smith rent a room. She'll get parenting classes and free daycare at Gateway High School. Big Brothers/Big Sisters — which helps pregnant girls as young as 11 — provides mentoring services. She hopes to be an elementary-school teacher one day.

Smith says that if she could talk to younger girls, she'd tell them, "Don't get pregnant at a young age. I would preach and preach that." She's bummed because, at eight months along, she is barely able to move. Her days consist of watching TV and taking buses to doctor's appointments. She won't be able to go to the fair this year.

Trying to explain the thinking of her peers, she says authoritatively, "If they want to have sex, they'll have sex. If they want to wait, they'll wait. But teaching them about safe sex is good. A lot of teenagers might use it. They really need to know."

The uptick in pregnancy has inflamed the debate about sex ed. In St. Lucie County, which has had its own problems with a rising AIDS rate, the School Board recently considered a comprehensive program that would include a field trip to buy condoms. That part of the curriculum was dropped after a public outcry led by a local pastor, but the program retained elements about condom usage. On January 8, state legislators introduced a bill called the Healthy Teens Act that would require schools to teach abstinence and contraception.

Brian Dodge, the University of Florida researcher, said his survey found that Broward was "the most progressive district in the state. Everyone should just move to Fort Lauderdale."

Bill Sydnor, Family Life and HIV/AIDS coordinator for the Broward County school system, takes that as a compliment. The district, he says, teaches "abstinence-plus," meaning that it covers contraception but stresses abstinence as best. Still, Sydnor says, no matter what any piece of paper says, class discussions can lead who knows where, and individual teachers have their own values. "It can be hard to ensure fidelity to the curriculum once that classroom door closes."

In addition to the classroom teachings, Sydnor says, most schools offer extra-curricular abstinence clubs as well as gay/straight alliances. Homosexuality is not in the official curriculum. "We say, 'If you engage in these behaviors, you are at risk.' "

Meaning, say, anal sex? "It does come up. People associate some of those behaviors with gay sexual behaviors, but some straight couples do it to avoid pregnancy or to maintain virginity."

If such topics are covered, why not define it as "comprehensive sex ed"? Sydnor explains that Broward doesn't demonstrate condoms, doesn't make them available, doesn't do HIV testing, and stresses abstinence first.

Broward's policy springs from necessity, Sydnor says. The county had the highest rate of new AIDS cases in the country in 2005. Sydnor hears of girls sleeping with boys six to nine years older, and students have reported offering sex in exchange for economic support. "We always say that the only way to prevent [STDs] is through abstinence. But we don't want to put them at risk because they haven't made that choice. I don't want to be responsible for withholding lifesaving information."

Sydnor adds: "Students say, 'Do you realize that if you don't give us this information, we will find it? You insult our intelligence and maturity.' If we have hope in young people, they will make good decisions. Some risks are just a part of growing up."

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