Birds & Bees

What are Minnesota’s public schools teaching about sex? The answer may surprise you.

What students learn in health class isn’t mandated by state statute. According to a January 2007 report by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting (MOAPPP), “all standards are decided at the local level.” Also according to the report, titled “HIV Prevention & Sex Education in Minnesota: What’s Being Taught in the Classroom,” the majority of teachers surveyed were unaware that state law defines what they are supposed to teach about HIV/AIDS.

Who decides?
While what a girl learns may depend in part on what school district she lives in, who makes the decisions at the district level? It’s seldom the school boards; St. Paul school board member Anne Carroll explained, “We set the overall policies and goals … not curriculum.”

It’s not always the district’s administration that decides, either. Most likely there’s one person who makes the final decision: the classroom teacher. In some cases that teacher is guided by a district policy or a curriculum. And sometimes those teachers are apprehensive. They know that comprehensive sexuality education can be controversial. They know what happened in the Osseo district when a small group of parents got involved in changing the district’s curriculum: Nine years ago, after a great deal of debate, the district implemented a “dual track system” in which parents choose whether their children will study a comprehensive sexuality curriculum or one that teaches abstinence only.

Teachers don’t want that to happen to them-or to their district. So some walk a fine line; in some cases, they omit factual information. Some of these teachers are clearly frustrated or feel they are not able to share information that would benefit their students. “We can’t talk about birth control, can’t talk about condoms,” said Renee Combs, who teaches health at Battle Creek Middle School in St. Paul. “A science teacher did a demonstration, he got in quite a bit of trouble … I think he demonstrated how a condom works. I don’t agree with that [not allowing talk about contraceptives], I’m not sure where it comes from. We also had a liberal principal.”

It’s hard to argue that abstinence is a bad thing for middle school students, who range in age from 10 to 15. But teachers such as Combs think that maybe there are other things that should be taught, too. “When you are teaching students from different backgrounds, including an Asian population where some [students] are married at 16 [years of age]…” her voice trailed off for a moment before she concluded, “We teach abstinence.”

Running scared?
Those were the exact words Combs penned on a copy of the middle-school curriculum that health teachers in her district use as their guide. And she left the same message on this journalist’s voicemail reiterating that abstinence was the focus of her teaching.

Combs isn’t the only educator who’s skittish when discussing what students are learning about sexuality, reproduction and contraception. Our telephone interview with a health teacher from the Minneapolis school district had three people on the line: the district media relations representative (a silent presence), along with this journalist and the teacher. Several districts didn’t return phone calls. The Minnesota Department of Education’s (MDE) communications director at first approved an interview with staff person Kathy Brothen, who works with districts on sexuality education and STD prevention education; later, the deputy communication director emailed this journalist, “I’m afraid we are unable to facilitate a phone interview at this time, but if you are willing to email us specific questions, we are more than happy to work with Kathy to provide written responses.” By that time the interview had already taken place.

A tale of two school districts
In Minneapolis, the state’s largest school district, high school students have a solid year of health science; two quarters of instruction in grades 9-10 and two quarters in grades 11-12. Jan Braaten, the district’s lead health and physical education teacher, said teachers worked together to design a “curriculum map” as a guide for teaching health classes. The “essential questions” in the curriculum map include:
How is a person infected with a sexually transmitted disease?
What is the most effective way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancy?
What are the short-term and long-term effects of being infected with a sexually transmitted disease?
How does a woman become pregnant?
What are the lifelong effects of teenage pregnancy?
What are the various methods of contraception?

Among the district’s goals is that students will “develop an understanding of core concepts and advanced skills in the following topics of study: … abstinence, and contraception … unintentional pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS … financing and accessing health services.” Braaten and the curriculum stress teaching students how to make decisions.

While Minneapolis’ curriculum map is on the web, it’s a bit different across the river in St. Paul, where even some administrators are uncertain exactly what is being taught. One administrator stated that the only students who take sex education in senior high are those who either didn’t take the class or failed it in middle school. She was corrected by Micheal Thompson, director of secondary curriculum. “We have some STD stuff, a little about contraception-talk about different methods,” Thompson said. “Maybe there needs to be more, I’m not sure … we try to have an informative curriculum.” It’s important to note that Thompson said that the district is in the process of revamping all of its curricula. “We want to be sure we have a common standard,” he said.
Billie McQuillan, the district’s former supervisor of curriculum and standards curriculum, facilitated the development of the current senior high health standards. Like Minneapolis, St. Paul emphasizes the importance of healthy relationships based on healthy decision-making. “We have a concern to help and protect all our students, really help them live healthy lifestyles,” McQuillan said. “It’s about … knowing who you are, how to make healthy decisions.
The draft of the St. Paul standards, dated August 2005, include these excerpts from the section titled Human Sexuality:
“The student will demonstrate the ability to: State the benefits of abstinence in disease prevention and pregnancy prevention.
Explain the reproductive system functions and potential diseases.
Recognize steps to care for one’s reproductive health.
Evaluate effectiveness of pregnancy prevention methods for disease and pregnancy prevention.
Identify pregnancy prevention methods.
Describe signs and symptoms of sexually transmitted infections (including HIV).
Explain abstinence.”

Who’s driving the abstinence-only train?
The news is full of studies proving what many educators have long suspected-that abstinence-based education is ineffective. One of the most notable studies, commissioned by the U.S. Congress, was released in April of this year. It’s findings: Students who participated in abstinence programs had sex at approximately the same age as those who did not (age 14.9), and both groups had comparable numbers of sexual partners.

Riley of MOAPPP is quick to point out that like most Americans, the vast majority of Minnesota parents support comprehensive sex education programs that include information about contraceptive methods over abstinence-only education. The “Minnesota Parent Survey on Sexuality Education in Public Schools,” released this spring by the University of Minnesota’s Healthy Youth Development Prevention Research Center, bears her out: 95 percent of parents surveyed agreed that “Sex ed should teach students how to avoid pregnancy and STDs if they do have sex.”

But Riley also witnessed first hand this year how powerful a small group of politically connected activists can be when at the 11th hour, language mandating comprehensive sex education was pulled from the K-12 education funding bill in order to get the governor to sign it into law.

According to Riley, the Minnesota Family Council “used a campaign of misinformation [and] … is crowing about their success in stopping the public schools from teaching kids how to have homosexual sex.”

The MFC’s website states: “MFC used press conferences, email alerts, and phone calls to inform pro-family citizens like you about the mandate and the raunchy curricula it would promote in our schools. As a result, thousands of social conservatives were energized to call the governor expressing gratitude for his stance, and encouragement to veto any bill that included comprehensive sex education.”


Lesbian girls at high risk
While many schools are reluctant to tackle the hot topic of sexual orientation, both Minneapolis and St. Paul schools have support systems in place. But statewide, just over half of high school teachers and 18 percent of middle-school teachers surveyed reported teaching about sexual orientation. Girls who are struggling with their sexuality need this education the most, Riley said. “Lesbian and questioning girls experience unintended pregnancies at twice the rate of straight girls.” She hypothesizes that this has to do with “a great deal of ambivalence about sexuality … ‘if I get pregnant, maybe I’m not really a lesbian.'”

Want to know more? 
The website of the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Planning (MOAPPP) offers a wealth of factual information about adolescent sexual health. Their website includes a resource section that includes the latest research, statistics, state and national resources, and curriculum and program information. MOAPPP resources are located at  www.moappp.org/resources.html.