Many Georgia school districts tell students: No sex until marriage

Dozens of kids and a handful of parents crowded into a small Methodist church in Fort Valley in June to participate in what the organizers called a community youth summit.
Dozens of kids and a handful of parents crowded into a small Methodist church in Fort Valley in June to participate in what the organizers called a community youth summit. Georgia Public Broadcasting

No sex until marriage.

That’s the message in many Georgia school districts, where sex education is abstinence based. Despite hundreds of student requests for science-based programs and several parent-led initiatives for curriculum change, abstinence-based programs still dominate the state’s schools.

Georgia does not have a single sex ed curriculum. Instead, schools choose yearly if they want to use a comprehensive sex ed program, an abstinence-only program, or no sex education at all.

More than one-third of the state’s 450 high schools use a curriculum called Choosing the Best, in which “the best” is considered sexual abstinence.

The program “encourages sexually active students to make a choice to stop having sex from this point forward, as the best and healthiest choice for their future,” according to the Choosing the Best website.

The website cites a 2010 study that found students who participated in the program were 1.5 times more likely to delay the onset of sex at the end of the ninth grade. That difference, however, was not sustained by the 10th grade, the study states.

“The data don’t show that it works,” said Andrea Swartzendruber, professor of Public Health at the University of Georgia. “In fact, it does not delay sexual initiation. It does not reduce risk behavior. A handful of studies have actually showed harm.”

She said said Choosing the Best, written by Georgia resident and outspoken supporter of abstinence-only education Bruce Cook, promotes abstinence by misleading students about the effectiveness of different forms of birth control.

Attempts to contact Choosing the Best were unsuccessful.

Gwinnett County schools, the state’s largest school system, uses Choosing the Best.

Jaime Winfree leads a coalition of parents who are trying to change the curriculum there. One student described to her an activity that included having the students suck on a hard candy and then spit it out. The used candies were compared to a woman who has had sex and was therefore considered “dirty,” Winfree said.

She started appealing to the school board after what she said was another major red flag — finding out that a local high school had brought in a crisis pregnancy center to teach Choosing the Best. Most crisis pregnancy centers are affiliated with Christian groups that are opposed to abortion.

“We feel these things are not in keeping with the tenants of public education because we have separation of church and state for a reason,” Winfree said.

Winfree’s group was told they had to convince Gwinnett County schools’ Community Health Education Advisory Committee, or CHEAC, to change to a medically backed curriculum. That board was made up of mostly teachers, parents and school administrators. Only three of its 27 members worked in the healthcare field.

“I sat in the CHEAC committee meeting, and said, ‘Can we all at least agree that one of the goals of a sex ed curriculum is to prevent teen pregnancy and prevent STD’s?’ And those people could not even give me that,” Winfree said.

The committee again approved Choosing the Best in March, with a final vote of 19 to 2 in favor.

Gwinnett County schools declined to be interviewed about the curriculum. Obria Medical Clinics, the crisis pregnancy center that teaches Choosing the Best, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Winfree said she would much prefer something like the FLASH program, which is being tested in Bibb County Schools. FLASH includes information about both hormonal and physical contraception, as well as abstinence.

Created by the health department in King County, Washington, the agency is conducting a two-year study of the program in Bibb schools.

“It is one of the few that is offered by a public health department, and so it really brings a public health model to sexual health education,” said Kerri Kesler of the King County Public Health Department.

FLASH has been used in every King County high school for over 20 years. The county’s teen pregnancy rate has fallen by 62 percent over the last decade.

The two-year Bibb County study is halfway done. If it changes kids’ attitudes about sex, Kesler said the next step would be to roll out the program long-term.

Dozens of kids and a handful of parents crowded into a small Methodist church in Fort Valley in June to participate in what the organizers called a community youth summit.

Otiserion French, a rising high school junior, attended the two-day event, where the first day was dedicated to comprehensive sex ed.

French said he was reminded of the lack of sex education in his high school nearly every day last year.

One of his classmates got pregnant, and he said that he and his friends felt helpless about the situation.

“If this girl, she’s pregnant, so we’re like the school ain’t helping us learn the education, and what we need to know, so what is there to do about it?” French said.

Bibb County is looking to upgrade its sex education curriculum. Some of its high schools will be part of a pilot study for the FLASH curriculum this fall.