Fulton schools changing sex-ed coursework; others to follow

Metro Atlanta school districts are considering changes to a controversial, abstinence-centered sex education curriculum, which some health care advocates and parents argue doesn’t teach teens how to protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Fulton school board members are taking up the “Choosing the Best” curriculum Tuesday, while Gwinnett’s board is expected to take it up later this year or by spring, school officials say. Cobb schools also use the curriculum, as do nearly half of all school systems in Georgia.

Proposed changes include new statistics, photos, videos and other visual aides emphasizing why students should wait until they’re married to have sex.

The curriculum’s critics say it doesn’t provide information about how to use contraceptives. Proponents of abstinence-centered sex ed believe students should be getting the message that no sex until marriage is the only completely safe way to avoid pregnancy and AIDS/HIV.

In Georgia, parents who don’t want their kids to get sex ed can opt them out, though the majority want them to get sex ed, according to surveys. Metro school leaders say very few parents opt their children out of sex ed courses.

Among the most debated culture-war issues, the question of abstinence-based versus more comprehensive sex-ed curricula gained steam with the onset of AIDS/HIV and a big push by conservative federal leaders to pour funds into programs that emphasized abstinence. Federal officials have since pulled back on such funding, funneling more money into sex education with a broader scope.

Georgia law requires schools to cover human sexuality and HIV/AIDS prevention, and says “instruction shall emphasize abstinence from sexual activity until marriage and fidelity in marriage as important personal goals.” Schools can use abstinence-based or more comprehensive sex ed curricula.

“In Fulton, we have an abstinence-centered approach and everything is geared toward … why you’d want to choose to not have sex,” said Tasha Guadalupe, health and physical education coordinator for Fulton schools, which adopted “Choosing the Best” in 2001. “It’s a risk-avoidance curriculum, so it’s explained why the things that can happen and why you’d choose not to want to have sex.”

Fulton school system leaders have not presented details of the proposed changes to “Choosing the Best” via the district’s website. Instead, print and other resources were displayed for public review at 13 schools and other sites across the district. Parents, teachers and others submitted input via surveys, though Fulton system representatives have not released those results.

Some health advocates have argued against “Choosing the Best” and other abstinence-centered curricula, saying they convey inaccurate information, shame sexually active students or exclude those who come from families where parents are not married. “Choosing the Best” covers contraception, but does not advocate or demonstrate contraceptive use.

“There’s not a standard in how the policy (Georgia law) is implemented. And so it’s very hit or miss. It’s not terribly effective,” said Kim Nolte, president and CEO of Georgia Campaign for Adolescence Power and Potential, a group that promotes teen pregnancy prevention. “We know that our young people are being shortchanged.”

Because the Georgia law is broadly written, school officials can cover sex ed to varying degrees, with some doing the minimum or not covering the topic at all, advocates say.

“Some (school officials) might feel like they’re following the policy by gathering all the students up and putting them in an auditorium and teaching them for 45 minutes and it’s with a guest speaker,” Nolte said. “We see that often. And there’s a check next to the box, we gave them information about HIV. Or we gave them information about abstinence. That is not an effective way of getting the information out. It doesn’t build their knowledge or skill level.”

Atlanta-based “Choosing the Best” is one of the more popular abstinence-centered sex ed curricula in the U.S. It’s used in 47 states, and since 1993 over 4 million students nationwide have completed the program, according to “Choosing the Best.”

Materials for “Choosing the Best” have been revised several times in recent years in response to input and criticisms, representatives say.

“If we find that the intended communication point of a lesson, activity, etc. has the potential to be misunderstood, we will revise it,” “Choosing the Best” said in a released statement. “Choosing the Best” … provides extensive information about decision-making, understanding healthy vs. unhealthy relationships, sexually transmitted diseases, avoiding sexual assault, sexual abuse, the impact of teen pregnancy on achieving future goals, issues with sexting and refusal skills.”

At most metro Atlanta schools, sex ed is covered in grades 6-12 during health courses that run one semester. Committees of teachers, students, parents and others recommend the type of sex ed curriculum to be used, and school board members vote on it.

Nearly a decade ago, a group of DeKalb County parents protested “Choosing the Best,” and the district dropped the curriculum. It now uses a sex ed program known as FLASH (Family Life and Sexual Health).

Allyson Gevertz, who has two children who have participated in the FLASH program in DeKalb schools, said she prefers the more comprehensive approach.

“It’s such a taboo topic for so many families that many kids, the only place they’re getting any education is at school on this,” Gevertz said. “If they’re not going to get it at home, they’ve got to get it from school. You don’t want to send them out into the world not armed to make those big decisions for themselves.”

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