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U.S. Schools Weigh Abstinence Education

November 23, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In the Staples Motley Middle School in rural Minnesota, sex education classes are often led by high school students, instead of teacher Bruce Onischuk.

They’re called PSI leaders, or postponed sexual involvement. The program is called ENABL.

STUDENT LEADER: Does anybody know what ENABL stands for? Yeah.

STUDENT: "Education Now And Babies Later."

STUDENT LEADER: Yes, that’s exactly right. Education Now And Babies Later.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: ENABL has an abstinence-only curriculum. It’s one that’s been tried here and in a few other Minnesota districts for about five years.

The abstinence-only approach is being strongly promoted by the Bush administration.

STUDENT: It’s better for teens to wait to have sex. Often people really don’t want to have a sexual relationship, but feel pressured.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Over several weeks these 13- and 14-year-olds will discuss situations where they are pressured to have sex.

STUDENT: You see a lot of stuff on TV and then their parents.

STUDENT: That’s a huge one. Yeah, media influence.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Reporter: The reasons to say, "no."

STUDENT LEADER: How about pregnancy? How about STDS?

STUDENT: Yeah.

BRUCE ONISCHUK: Who knows what a myth is?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And myths are about the only context in which there’s any mention of contraception.

BRUCE ONISCHUK: Another myth might be that some of the contraceptions that are out there, condoms, aren’t 100 percent foolproof. And they are not.

The only thing that’s 100 percent foolproof regarding pregnancy and STDS is abstinence.

STUDENT LEADER: You all know what abstinence is, right? Abstinence is not having sex.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The student leaders have pledged to remain abstinent until marriage, and a random group of eighth-graders we talked to seemed ready to sign on.

KATIE AMUNDSON: Just so you can have a good relationship like, like what they said, with your husband. You don’t have that awkwardness of like not being a virgin when you get married.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Is this a goal that you think is realistic for kids at your age?

JOSE ALBA: Yeah. It should be. Because I’m not going to do it until I’m married, I know that.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But surveys show half of American high schoolers and about one-quarter of junior high students are sexually active.

And a recent report card on Minnesota’s ENABL program found it didn’t seem to change those trends. The evaluation was done in three junior high schools that used the program.

It found that over the course of a year, the number of kids who became, or said they intended to become, sexually active about doubled– a pattern quite similar to the general adolescent population.

Critics of the ENABL program come from left and right of the political spectrum.

Nancy Nelson heads a group that advocated a more comprehensive sex education, one which also teaches about contraceptives and how to use them.

NANCY NELSON: We’ve now spent $5 million of state and federal funds, and these kids don’t have the information they need to protect themselves whenever they become sexually active, even if they wait until they’re married.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Nelson says a particular concern is that the ENABL program was found ineffective in some communities of color, where teen pregnancy rates remain high. She says information about contraceptives is critical for all adolescents.

NANCY NELSON: There was a recent study that showed that in this group of kids who had pledged virginity, 60 percent of them broke their pledges and didn’t use protection.

That’s a big concern. These kids aren’t ready, and they’re not protected. And we’re setting them up for potentially fatal diseases.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But proponents of abstinence-only sex education say condoms provide a false sense of protection.

TIM PRICHARD: We’re saying you can have safe sex, when in fact there’s no such thing as safe sex. It reduces the risk of getting AIDS by 85 percent.

But that’s still a one in seven chance that you’re still going to contract a deadly disease. I don’t think those are very good odds.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Tom Prichard, with the group called the Minnesota Family Council, says contraceptives undermine a strong message to abstain from any sexually arousing behavior.

He says one reason for ENABL’s poor showing is that it dilutes the abstinence message with discussions about just such behaviors.

TIM PRICHARD: Here’s a sheet that says "showing feelings in physical ways." This is from the ENABL program. And they list a number of categories: "Giving friendly looks and smiles," "holding hands," "put arms around," "hold close and kiss," "explore above the waist," "explore below the waist," and "have sex."

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That handout, in your mind, is clearly a slippery slope.

TIM PRICHARD: Oh, I think it clearly is. It’s encouraging sexual exploration. And once you start down that slope, it’s hard for kids to stop.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Staples Motley teacher Bruce Onischuk says the handout is part of learning to set limits.

BRUCE ONISCHUK: In some of our discussions in class, I’ve talked to the kids that if you reach a certain point in your physical contact, whether it’s hand holding, kissing, petting, heavy petting and, you know, the list goes on, there comes a point in time where it’s really tough, or it’s very difficult to all of a sudden say, "whoa, no, we’re stopping," and "we shouldn’t go any further than that."

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Do you kids are able to stop, have the tools to be able, you know, to know where their limits are?

BRUCE ONISCHUK: Part of what we… part of what’s discussed in ENABL are refusal skills in how to handle situations.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: At the heart of this debate and teachers’ dilemma is how adolescents handle information. For example, does teaching about how to use condoms lead to more sexual activity?

BRUCE ONISCHUK: I believe there will be more activity, I really do. I think it’s human nature.

But then again, I see the other side of the argument, too: If these kids are sexually active, shouldn’t we provide some protection for them?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The Staples Motley District does offer a so-called "Values and Choices" course.

STUDENT IN VIDEO: Hey, come on. Everyone else is doing it.

STUDENT IN VIDEO: Maybe. I’m not everyone else.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The curriculum does press abstinence, but also provides basic information on how to use contraceptives.

District Superintendent Kenneth Scarborough says he’d prefer to stick with abstinence, but wants to be realistic.

KENNETH SCARBOROUGH: We hope, and we present tools for them to discuss these issues with their parents.

But we have to be real about the choices that our students are making, and we have to give them information to be safe.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: One thing the schools do not offer are contraceptives in the nurse’s office. It’s prohibited at schools receiving certain federal grants.

But it’s not difficult to get condoms here. And that’s common knowledge to eighth graders.

STUDENT: Gas stations.

STUDENT: Bathrooms.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Amid the heated debate and conflicting research on what works with sex-ed, parents we talked to said they were satisfied with the approach taken in Staples Motley.

Despite poor marks so far, Mary Freeman says the abstinence-only message seems right in middle school.

MARY FREEMAN: I think that this target audience of twelve to fourteen, they don’t need that information yet. They need to hear that abstinence-only information.

And I think if you start from there and then you give them more information later, then they have choices, then they have decisions to make.

And usually what kids bite on first is what they’ll chew on the longest. And I think if you give them this abstinence-only message, I think it will stick.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Meanwhile, Minnesota state health officials say they’re not ready to dismiss the ENABL program. They say a couple more years of research is needed to assess whether its message does stick.

One trend no one questions is the growth of the abstinence- only approach. It’s now the only sex education curriculum offered in about one- third of all U.S. public schools.