Keep your pants on

Seminole County kids learn that sex is bad, and almost nothing else that could save their lives

You can't fault Seminole County Public Schools administrators for talking almost apologetically about their district's strict, abstinence-only sex-ed program: "It doesn't matter what my opinion is," says Mary Lane, secondary curriculum specialist. "The school board has directed it to us. What Mary Lane feels is irrelevant."

Adds Lynn Baggett, community resource specialist: "We're a very conservative county."

Seminole schools -- along with Volusia and Osceola counties -- are among the 35 percent of schools nationally teaching the abstinence-only sex-ed programs endorsed by President Bush to the tune of $117 million in federal money each year. Last year, Bush asked for a 33 percent increase in abstinence-only funding as part of the reauthorization of the 1996 welfare-reform bill, which should go to a congressional vote in coming weeks. A provision of the proposal to require "medically accurate" information was stricken due to conservatives' fear of sending a "mixed message." All programs that receive the federal abstinence-only dollars must teach "that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."

Forty-nine states -- excluding California, which sticks to "medically accurate" information -- take the federal abstinence money. Florida gets $2.2 million and augments it with about $4 million of its own, then distributes the money to groups that preach abstinence until marriage.

Simply put, there's no proof abstinence programs work. Former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, for instance, issued a report two years ago saying that comprehensive education didn't encourage sex, and abstinence programs didn't encourage chastity.

Still, in conservative counties like Seminole, chastity is the virtue stressed during the three weeks of the human sexuality class, which itself is part of the required, semester-long, life-management course. Even Lane admits it's tough to demonstrate how effective abstinence-only programs are, if at all.

So why are they used? We can't say exactly, because Seminole schools superintendent Paul Hagerty did not return the phone calls for this story.

Seminole also lets outside groups do in-class presentations to augment human sexuality, including the Catholic JMJ Life Center, which Orange County rejected from similar in-class presentations because of "concerns with the validity of their information," says Orange resource teacher Kathy Bowman-Harrow, who selects such groups. (Orange allows abstinence-only groups in, provided they don't discredit contraception.)

Discrediting contraception is JMJ's specialty, and Seminole doesn't mind.

Of the five groups Seminole lets in -- representatives of the University of Central Florida's Resource Center and the Seminole County health department, Safe House of Seminole, Seminole County Healthy Start Coalition and JMJ Life Center -- JMJ is the most controversial, with clearly stated anti-abortion, anti-birth control, anti-extramarital-sex agendas. Its literature asserts that, "Homosexual acts insult the natural male and female union," and that masturbation "offends the nature and purpose of genital sex activity."

JMJ also declares the pill an "abortion agent" and claims it causes infertility, cancer, blood clots, stroke and weight gain, and makes women more susceptible to AIDS and other immune-related diseases.

"It's a bunch of falsehoods," says Sue Idtensohn, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando. "That's just crazy. It's not based on any kind of medical fact. I don't know what it's based on. They just really are using information incorrectly. They're just making this stuff up."

Planned Parenthood makes presentations to students in Orange County, and an abstinence-based program in Seminole High School where students take home baby replicas over the weekend to learn how demanding kids can be. But Planned Parenthood isn't on the approved list countywide.

JMJ's brochures against the pill, homosexuality and masturbation aren't among the school-board-approved literature. But literature proclaiming, "Using a condom does not protect you from AIDS or pregnancy!" is.

"It's frightening," adds Lauri Olson, a health educator who runs the Healthy Start Coalition's ENABL (Education Now and Babies Later) program. "How can you stand up there ... and slam condoms? When they become sexually active, [they decide] 'I'm not going to use condoms because they don't work anyway.'"

ENABL is a five-week program aimed at sixth graders, essentially encouraging children to feel comfortable with their parents discussing their awakening sexuality. Inside Seminole schools, Healthy Start follows the rules, and refers any out-of-bounds questions to the student's parents. Olson refuses to knock contraceptives.

Outside the classroom, however, Healthy Start delivers a much more comprehensive program, including a resource directory for teens that covers all aspects of their sexual experience, from abstinence to contraceptives to gay and lesbian students.

Though JMJ is prevented by Seminole County from mentioning the word "abortion," a pamphlet describing the in-depth gestational development of babies is in the packet of approved literature.

Under Seminole's rules, JMJ isn't allowed to pass out their literature, though they can "make it available" to students, Lane says.

What about those kids who've already had sex? "We would love to see Seminole County adopt a more comprehensive sex-ed program," Olson says. "We're not comfortable talking about abstinence when half of your group is already out to lunch [i.e. they're sexually active]."

Of the four programs that teachers have to request to go into the classroom, JMJ is the least requested program in Seminole. In the current school year, it has been invited into 20 high-school classes. Comparably, Safe House has gone into 116 classes; the health department and UCF's resource center have gone into 30 and 46 middle- and high-school classes, respectively. Healthy Start gives presentations to sixth graders on five consecutive Fridays.

(Another group, Mary's Shelter, is not on the list, but teaches after-school abstinence programs, thought it doesn't have the captive audience of an in-school presentation.)

Still, critics say the practice of allowing religious groups to teach sex-ed subjects students, like it or not, to Judeo-Christian ethics and denies them a more rounded view of sexuality.

"We know that young people are having sex," says Jennifer Nadeau, a spokeswoman for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a sexual-issues research group. "When you tell them contraceptives don't work, it won't stop them from having sex. It might stop them from using contraceptives."


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