SC House: Sex-ed classes should be medically accurate, not just focusing on abstinence (+survey)

04/01/2014 11:00 PM

04/01/2014 11:33 PM

SC school students should get medically accurate information about sex and health, a state House committee decided Tuesday.

The proposal is part of a push to update the state’s 26-year-old health-and-sex education law that has pitted advocates of teaching abstinence only, now emphasized in classrooms, against those who say students need to learn ways to prevent pregnancy and disease.

Public school districts also would be required to report to the state and parents what they are teaching, according to the proposal, which is heading to the S.C. House floor for debate.

The House Education and Public Works Committee voted 10 to 6 with bipartisan support to advance the proposal, which would require that any information students are taught about health be “medically accurate,” according to credible medical publications, associations or agencies.

The bill also would require sex-ed teachers to be certified in health by August 2020.

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Under current law, school districts teach abstinence to prevent pregnancy and disease. Discussions of contraception are limited to future family planning.

An earlier version of the House proposal would have expanded the topics that health teachers could discuss with students to include, among other things, sex outside of marriage and sexual activity not for reproduction.

But the changes approved Tuesday did not go that far. The exclusion of those topics was one of the compromises that sex-education advocates made to advance the bill.

“This is not a perfect bill – no side is getting everything they want – but this is a great first step,” said Emma Davidson with the New Morning Foundation, one of the groups pushing the legislation. “It will help answer a lot of questions about where the problems (with how sex education is taught) are.”

The bill also would let parents and the public know what students are being taught in health classes by requiring districts to post online their health curriculum.

Districts already are supposed to report that curriculum to the state, but the reporting requirement is not enforced. The bill would change that by directing the state Department of Education to withhold 1 percent of a school district’s state money if it does not comply with the reporting requirements.

Bipartisan support for the bill – split evenly between Republicans and Democrats on the committee – is a good sign that the proposal could pass the full GOP-backed House, Davidson said.

The bill’s most vocal sponsors are two Republicans: Reps. B.R. Skelton of Pickens and Jenny Horne of Dorchester.

Skelton, in particular, has cited the state’s teen pregnancy rate – at 36.5 births for every 1,000 15- to 19-year-old females, the 11th highest in the nation – as evidence that schools’ sex-ed instruction needs to do more than focus on abstinence.

But not all Republicans are sold on the proposal. Six Republicans voted Tuesday against advancing the bill.

“We have some very good laws on the book right now,” said Rep. Joe Daning, R-Berkeley, before voting against the bill. “(I)t talks mainly about abstinence. Abstinence is medically proven to be a winner. ... This particular bill will allow other theories into the classroom.”

Daning said one of the bill’s supporters said her 17-year-old son is sexually active and was not listening to her. “She wants us to adopt this bill so the teachers can tell him not to do this,” Daning said.

“I agree abstinence is the best way,” said Rep. Ralph Norman, R-York. “But do you think abstinence is being practiced now by a majority of our high-school sophomores, juniors, seniors and college (students)? No.”

Norman said while families should teach their children about sex, “the reality” is some children come from broken families that do not have conversations about pregnancy and disease prevention.

Supporters of the bill want to send a “very direct message” to students “because children now don’t understand what they’re doing when they’re having sex,” Norman said.

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