LINCOLN — A state senator envisions a day when Nebraska schoolchildren would learn about sexual abstinence and contraception just as they do math and reading.
Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm recently introduced a bill that would make sexual health instruction part of the Nebraska Department of Education's statewide standards.
The state currently requires public schools to offer general health classes, but decisions on whether to include sex education are left up to individual districts.
Some provide no sex education, some offer abstinence-only instruction and others teach what's called abstinence-plus, which includes information about contraceptive use.
Legislative Bill 619 spells out that the required curriculum must teach:
» That not engaging in sexual contact is the only certain way to prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
» The effectiveness, benefits, side effects and correct use of contraceptive methods approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The list includes condoms, the birth-control pill and other methods such as the morning-after pill.
» Information on sexually transmitted diseases, healthy relationships, peer pressure, the effects of drug and alcohol use on decision-making, how to deal with unwanted sexual advances and why it's wrong to sexually exploit others.
The bill also says students could opt out of sex health instruction by submitting a letter from a parent.
Haar acknowledged that past efforts to mandate “comprehensive” sex education have been unsuccessful, but he argued it's better to inform teens who choose to be sexually active to reduce pregnancy and STDs.
“I just don't buy that we include the things that everybody agrees on and leave out the rest,” Haar said. “We all know when it came to drugs, 'Just Say No' didn't work.”
Greg Schleppenbach with the Nebraska Catholic Conference didn't buy that characterization of abstinence education. If society agrees it's best for teens to avoid sex until marriage, paying lip service to abstinence because some consider it unrealistic defeats the goal, he said.
“Abstinence education isn't telling kids 'no' and sending them on their way,” Schleppenbach said. “It's about giving them the life skills to make good decisions.”
About eight out of 10 high schools taught the benefits of sexual abstinence in 2012, based on a survey of 299 Nebraska schools by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During the same year, not quite 60 percent of high schools instructed students on “the importance of using condoms consistently and correctly,” the survey reported. The percentage dropped to about 23 percent of schools that taught about all contraceptive methods.
Sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy rates are often cited as reasons for sex education. A look at the trends in Nebraska shows chlamydia infections increased by almost 16 percent from 2009 to 2012 while gonorrhea infections have remained flat, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
Meanwhile, teen pregnancy in Nebraska dropped by 27 percent from 1991 to 2010, according to federal statistics. Nationally, the teen pregnancy rate fell by 45 percent over that period.
Representatives of the state's two largest school districts say they already meet much of what Haar's bill would require.
Omaha Public Schools require students to take courses in human growth and development that include sex education starting in eighth grade, said David Patton, a spokesman for the district. Information on abstinence and contraception are provided, and parents can have their kids opt out of the classes.
Lincoln Public Schools take a similar approach, although abstinence-only sexual health is incorporated in every grade, said Marybell Avery, curriculum specialist for Lincoln's district. The instruction goes beyond abstinence starting in eighth grade.
“But we still maintain that abstinence is the best choice for teens, and we're clear about that,” Avery said.
On average, Avery said, she hears of fewer than five students who opt out of the classes each year, although there could be more she doesn't hear about.
Millard Public Schools teach a pro-abstinence sex education curriculum. While contraception is not included, if students ask about it, teachers provide information, said Rebecca Kleeman, district spokeswoman.
Millard's school board has a policy allowing local districts todecide what to teach and how to teach it, she said.
The Newcastle school district in northeastern Nebraska has just 79 students. The school nurse teaches an abstinence-only program, which also includes Q&A's, said Superintendent Joey Lefdal. No parents have asked for changes, but Lefdal said state sex ed standards might help smaller districts.
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