Sonoma County – Today the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC) has asked school districts in Sonoma County to comply with California law by replacing abstinence-only sex education with curricula that teach about condoms and contraception, as well as abstinence.
In a letter sent to each of the 40 school districts in Sonoma County, the ACLU has requested written confirmation that abstinence-only instruction currently provided in some junior and high schools by an outside agency called Free to Be will be discontinued starting in the 2009-2010 school year. Free To Be has received federal grants of over $4 million since 2004 to provide abstinence-only education in Sonoma and neighboring counties. As a recipient of federal abstinence-only funds, Free To Be is not allowed to discuss condoms or contraception except to refer to their failure rates, a condition of the grants.
Under the California Education Code, sexuality education in public schools must be medically accurate, free of bias, and comprehensive, including age-appropriate information about abstinence, condoms, sexually transmitted infections and contraception in grades 7-12. Public schools in California are prohibited from using abstinence-only curricula.
"California law requires that sex education be based in public health science, not ideology," said Margaret Crosby, ACLU-NC staff attorney. The ACLU co-sponsored the law governing HIV/AIDS and sex education in the state's public schools.
Sebastopol parent Robert Edmonds was shocked when his son came home from junior high in 2006 and recounted that presenters in his science class had distributed a pledge form to remain abstinent until marriage. Edmonds called the school, Brook Haven Middle School, to learn more, and discovered that the presenters of the Free To Be curriculum provide abstinence-only education, and did not include lessons on contraception or effective use of condoms.
"We all want our kids to hold off sexual activity until they're mature and ready. But I also want my sons to have access to medically accurate, unbiased information. I want them to learn healthy and responsible behavior," said Edmonds. Edmonds first notified the Sebastopol Union School District about the Free To Be curriculum in 2006, and asked that it be removed. Free To Be, however, is still providing instruction in the Brook Haven Middle School, where his younger son, now age 10, will enroll in two years. His older son is now 15.
Phyllida Burlingame, ACLU-NC sex education policy director, stated, "Free To Be violates state law not only by denying students important information about condoms and contraception, but also by including inaccurate, subjective, and biased information. California's young people deserve better. They are legally entitled to the facts they need to protect their health and prevent unintended pregnancy."
In its effort to convince students to remain abstinent until marriage, Free To Be exaggerates the failure rate of condoms, suggests that sexual activity outside of marriage inevitably has negative consequences, and asserts that students who remain abstinent will experience freedom from exploitation by others and freedom from guilt, doubt, disappointment, worry, and rejection. For example, the curriculum likens condoms to a safety net and asks students to "observe the holes in the net," emphasizing that condoms are not 100% effective. In fact, condoms are 98% effective in preventing pregnancy when used properly, and 85% effective in typical use.
High school senior Alice Jaffee is a student and peer educator in Forestville, and knows how important it is for teens and pre-teens to have access to complete and accurate sexual health information. "Knowledge gives you the power to make healthy decisions. If you don't have accurate information about all the options, you can't make decisions to protect yourself," Jaffee said.
A wide variety of experts agree: comprehensive sex education is what works; abstinence-only education does not. An April 2008 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health shows that students who received comprehensive sex education were half as likely to become pregnant as students who received abstinence-only sex education. Additionally, a congressionally mandated evaluation of the federal abstinence program, released in 2007, found that the abstinence-only education had no effect on students' behaviors. Richard Carmona, a former Surgeon General in the Bush Administration, testified to Congress in 2007 that comprehensive sex education, which includes information about condoms and contraception, is what works.
California's science-based health policy is increasingly mirrored in a nationwide trend away from abstinence-only sex education. In May 2009, President Obama proposed discontinuing federal abstinence-only funding and instead providing funding for comprehensive teen pregnancy prevention. Congress has not yet acted on the President's proposal.