Report: Most SC schools fail to comply with state’s sex ed law

jself@thestate.comJanuary 31, 2013 

— Three out of four SC school districts fail to comply with a state law outlining how they should teach sex education, according to a report released this month.

Additionally, that law, the report contends, is flawed, providing little oversight of what districts are teaching in sex ed classes, and needs to be rewritten.

More than half of seven Midlands-area school districts failed to comply with at least some aspect of the law’s requirements, according to the report, “A Sterling Opportunity: 25 Years After the Comprehensive Health Education Act” by the New Morning Foundation, a Columbia-based health-and-sex education advocacy group.

But all the Midlands school districts did respond to a required annual survey from the state Department of Education, asking them to provide details of their sex ed policies.

Almost one in five SC school districts did not make that required filing. But those school districts do not face any consequences for failing to make the report, state education leaders say.

It is difficult to know what SC students are learning in their sex-ed classes because districts use the “honor system” to report what they are teaching, said Emma Davidson with the New Morning Foundation, a privately funded, self-described nonpartisan group committed to decreasing unintended pregnancies among people younger than 30 and limiting the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Concerned about the lack of state oversight and the state’s higher-than-average teen birth rate, the New Morning Foundation is pushing lawmakers to revisit the state’s 1988 Comprehensive Education Act. That law required teaching sex education.

“The Comprehensive Health Education Act, as written, has significant weaknesses,” Davidson said. “There’s no way to verify if teachers are spending time explaining the basics of reproductive health” or “if students are learning that condoms prevent pregnancy and STDs.

“There’s no way to ensure that sex education lessons are based on medically accurate facts or if personal opinions, religious beliefs and other non-scientific perspectives have made their way into the classroom. Beyond the honor system, we simply don’t know how time is spent in the classroom and what students are learning.”

The 1988 law requires districts to:

• Teach high school students about reproductive health and pregnancy prevention for a minimum of 750 minutes in the ninth through 12th grade

• Teach middle school students about sexually transmitted diseases and HIV prevention

• Provide health education teachers with staff development opportunities

• Form a health education advisory committee consisting of 13 members, including students

• Send an annual report detailing whether the district is complying with the law to the SC Department of Education

Some decisions on classroom materials and topics to be covered are left to the discretion of school districts. The result, Davidson said, is students attending schools in neighboring districts could receive very different information in their sex-ed classes.

Midlands districts miss some marks

The foundation’s report is based in part on school districts’ 2011 responses to an Education Department sex-ed survey. Only 81 percent of the state’s 85 school districts responded to that survey. Five school districts had not responded to the survey in three years, according to the Education Department.

In the Midlands, two school districts – Richland 1 and Lexington 1 – reported to the state that they met all the law’s requirements. The five other school districts in Richland and Lexington counties reported failing to meet some of the law’s requirements.

Kathryn Zenger, a researcher for the report, said three Lexington school districts failed to fulfill the law’s requirements that they teach prevention of sexually transmitted diseases in all three middle-school grades. Two districts also reported having no students on the advisory committees that oversee sex-ed curriculum.

One of those districts – Lexington-Richland 5 – says it does have students on its advisory committee but left them off its report to the state.

Reporting errors aside, not all districts know the law or what is required of them, New Morning’s Davidson said.

The foundation recommends lawmakers take steps to ensure students are receiving quality, consistent information and districts know what is expected of them. It also recommends requiring districts to report detailed instructional practices and set minimum hours for staff development.

The foundation also would like to see changes in the law’s language, including its current requirement that contraception always be discussed in the context of “future family planning.” That language “implies that no unmarried persons are sexually active, and ignores the fact that the majority of high school seniors in South Carolina report having engaged in sexual activity,” according to the report.

Almost 60 percent of teens have had sex by the time they are high school seniors, research shows. The abstinence-only approach to sex ed has not reduced that number, the report says.

State schools chief Mick Zais agrees with only one of the foundation’s recommendations: School districts that fail to comply with the law need to be held accountable, Education Department spokesman Jay Ragley said.

Nothing in the current law provides penalties for districts that do not comply with it, he said. The result is some school districts do not report anything to the state.

Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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