ARTICLE

Teaching the birds and the bees

State sexual education requirements lead to gaps

CEDAR RAPIDS — Students in Kelly Snyder’s health class at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids get a pretty thorough understanding when it comes to the birds and the bees.

The class covers issues such as healthy relationships, dating violence and “sexting” as well as sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and safe sex.

“A lot of kids feel pressured,” Snyder said. “I give them the facts. We talk about abstinence and safe sex as well as the tools and resources available to them.”

But not every student gets the kind of comprehensive sexual education that students in Snyder’s class do.

Iowa has a Human Growth and Development Mandate, which tells school districts to provide age-appropriate and research-based instruction regarding human sexuality. But the mandate isn’t funded and it doesn’t specify how much time schools should devote to sexual education.

This leads experts to believe that there are gaps across the state when it comes to sex ed.

Discrepancies

“Schools interpret (the mandate) in different ways,” said Kristin Fairholm, executive director of Eyes Open Iowa, a Des Moines-based group that advocates for adolescent sexual health.

Fairholm said leaving the sexual education curriculum up to the individual districts and schools means there are wide discrepancies, with students at some schools receiving only one presentation while other students get a full evidence-based curriculum.

“Our chief concern is that all young people get medically accurate sexual education,” she said.

But that’s not always the case if an instructor doesn’t have proper training. He or she may incorporate personal beliefs into the presentation without even meaning to, Fairholm added.

Students need to receive fair and correct information, Fairholm said, and it’s not up to the teacher to decide what that information is.

“They need to know how to answer sensitive questions and to be fully inclusive — that means gay and questioning teens, teens who are sexually abused, who may be pregnant or have an STD (sexually transmitted disease). We don’t want instructors to shame students.”

A 2012 Sexual Health Alliance of Linn and Johnson Counties survey of Corridor schools found there are large differences in the amount of sexual education students receive, depending on their school, said Katie Jones, health education specialist for Linn County Public Health and coalition coordinator for the Sexual Health Alliance.

For example, Linn-Mar High School requires students take a health class to graduate. The class brings in outside speakers and covers issues such as sexting and dating violence in addition to discussing STD statistics.

However, Washington High School offers only a one-hour presentation in an optional health class in addition to two-days of science-based sexual health education.

“A one-hour lecture is not enough time,” Jones said. “We want programs that have been shown to work. It helps ensure students have the tools they need.”

Comprehensive Education

Eyes Open Iowa and the Sexual Health Alliance both advocate for comprehensive, evidence-based sexual education that is age-appropriate in schools.

This means schools teach students that while abstaining from sex is the best method to prevent pregnancy and STDs, it also teaches students about contraception and helps students develop interpersonal and communication skills, Jones said.

According to the National Sexuality Education Standards, comprehensive programs have been shown to help youth delay the onset of sexual activity, reduce the frequency of sexual activity, reduce the number of sexual partners and increase condom and contraceptive use.

Fairholm said school districts also should have curricula that build upon one another, meaning children learn about things such as healthy body image and self-esteem in early education and move to more complicated matters such as relationships, decision-making, assertiveness and skill building to resist peer pressure as they get older.

Eyes Open Iowa provides help to schools and districts to create or improve their comprehensive sexual education curricula though two programs — its Working to Institutionalize Sex Ed (WISE) program and its Community Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (CAPP) grant program.

The WISE program works to implement and sustain kindergarten-through-grade-12 programming in school districts that addresses adolescent sexual health. Eyes Open Iowa is working with 19 school districts in Iowa.

The CAPP program is funded by the Iowa Department of Human Services and appropriated by the legislature. Grantees, which includes Planned Parenthood of the Heartland in Linn County, must implement an evidence-based curricula in at least one school setting.

“A lot of the work that we do is sort through curricula and develop programs,” Fairholm said. “Staff goes out and reviews policy and train teachers.”

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