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Sex education dangerously underestimating teens

Students sit down in classrooms all over the United States expecting to learn about history, math and science … but sex education? Should this be taught in schools?

Across America, court cases are being brought against school districts that refuse to teach sex education on their campuses. Since students are required to attend a form of public, private or home schooling until they are 16 years old, where else will they get information on safe sexual encounters if schools are refusing to explore the way to protect themselves during sex?

Many abstinence supporters claim sex education isn’t necessary because students aren’t having sex; this is far from the truth. By the time they are 21 years old, 99 percent of Americans are or have been sexually active, according to a study by the University of California-San Francisco. Sixteen percent of teenagers in the report said they’ve had an average of four sexual partners. If school officials preach a strict policy of abstinence, or ignore the topic altogether, it stands to reason the rates of sexually transmitted diseases — 4 million teens are infected each year in the United States — will continue to rise.

With the re-election of President George W. Bush in November, many conservatives in the United States took the win as an opportunity to combine the federal government’s support of abstinence-only programs with their desire to see American students taught these beliefs. Many of these programs’ officials have tried to illegally add religious content into the lectures on abstinence.

In New Orleans, the American Civil Liberties Union asked a U.S. District Court to find the Governor’s Program on Abstinence in contempt of a 2002 order requiring it to keep religion out of the taxpayer-funded sex education program. ACLU members said the governor’s program continually features religious materials on its official Web site, AbstinenceEdu.com. State-appointed experts advise readers on the site that “abstaining from sex until entering a loving marriage will … (make you) really, truly, ‘cool’ in God’s eyes,” and that “God is standing beside you the whole way” if you commit to abstinence.

A 1983 lawsuit, Bowen v. Kendrick, decided public money cannot be used to fund religious activities in government-funded sexuality education. However, in recent years, the federal government has put hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into abstinence-only education programs — many with religious undertones — despite the lack of conclusive evidence these programs work and mounting evidence that such programs deter sexually active teens from protecting themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

A report prepared for Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif) by the Special Investigation Division of the House Committee on Government Reform explores federal abstinence-only programs under the Special Projects of Regional and National Significance, or SPRANS. The report showed that the content of federally funded abstinence-only education programs taught children false failure rates for condoms, that masturbation can lead to pregnancy and that AIDS can be contracted through sweat and tears.

According to the report, over two-thirds of the programs reviewed use curriculums that distort information about contraceptives and contain basic scientific errors. With all the errors involved in these federally sponsored abstinence programs, it seems the best way to combat false claims is by teaching fact — the kind more readily found with safe-sex education.

Without proper education on how to prevent pregnancy and the spread of disease, how will students who engage in sexual activity learn to protect themselves? The Internet, a popular tool for finding answers to all feasible questions, is not available to many lower-income students; the classroom is still the best way to filter ideas to the community.

If school educators want students to not have sex before marriage, this burden of morality should begin and build in the home, not the school. While on campus, students should be educated in ways that will help them make more informed choices as they grow and mature into adults.

Caressa Lattimore The Lariat, Baylor University.