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Chicago Tribune
Study faults state sex education:
Tracy Dell'Angela, Tribune staff reporter
March 15, 2005
Sex education in Illinois schools is too often glossed over in health classes and taught with materials that offer teens incomplete or inaccurate information, according to a statewide survey released Monday.

Middle and high school teachers averaged 12 hours of sex-education instruction in all, and 60 percent of health teachers did not cover birth control, sexual orientation or abortion. About 15 percent did not teach the basics of conception, pregnancy and childbirth, according to the survey, commissioned by Planned Parenthood and the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health.

The study's backers say the findings underscore the need for alternatives to abstinence-only programs backed by the Bush administration, which gave $2.8 million to Illinois to promote such programs this school year. Programs that get these federal dollars do not discuss alternatives to abstinence as a way of preventing pregnancy and disease.

Illinois schools are not required to teach sex education, and there is no state money set aside to help districts buy materials and train teachers in this subject. What is taught is often left to individual schools or teachers.

"We all want our young people to wait to have sex. But it's not responsible to withhold information ... or teach information that's just plain inaccurate," said Illinois Sen. Carol Ronen (D-Chicago), who introduced a bill this year that would provide state grants to schools offering comprehensive sex education. "We need to start talking about this. Kids know when they are being lied to."

The findings were culled from a survey of 335 teachers in 201 public schools. A group of students in Chicago said the findings mirror what they have and haven't been taught about sex. The group from Curie High School persuaded their school leaders to adopt a more realistic sex education program.

Curie junior Anabel Arquello said she never learned about sex from her teachers or her parents. That's why she and other Curie students lobbied for a change that she said would have helped her friend, who became pregnant because she never learned about contraception.

"She's due in April, and she's already decided to drop out of school," said Arquello, 17, whose social studies class looked at some of the underlying causes of teen pregnancy in a research project. "A lot of my friends don't know how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases."

Both sides agreed sex education is a controversial subject for schools.

Yet national studies in the last decade, including an earlier survey in Illinois by the same two groups, have indicated that about 80 percent of residents want and expect schools to teach children about contraception and disease prevention.

Proponents of abstinence-only programs, however, have said their message is effective in preventing teen pregnancy and is resonating with teens. They said students want strong messages that will help them resist pressure from peers and the media to engage in sex outside marriage. In Illinois, the percentage of babies born to teenagers has dropped over the last nine years, from 13 percent of all births in 1994 to 9.7 percent in 2003, according to state health officials.

"Abstinence programs like Project Reality's give students medically accurate information on sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy and specifically address the emotional risks of early sexual activity," Libby Gray, director of Project Reality, said in a statement Monday. Project Reality, based in Illinois, is one of the nation's largest providers of abstinence-only materials, curricula and training. "Abstinence programs teach refusal and life skills as opposed to condom skills. Comprehensive sex education programs are the ones that need to be evaluated on age-appropriateness and medical accuracy."

Proponents of comprehensive sex education have argued that many abstinence-only programs rely on fear tactics and stereotypes about gender roles to convince students that sex outside marriage is dangerous. For example, the literature produced by Project Reality argues that condoms are ineffective in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and links the increase in disease with the increase in condom use among teens.

The proponents say state sex education grants--for which Ronen is seeking about $2.5 million--would give schools more choice about the programs they teach, instead of relying heavily on free abstinence-only programs.

In Chicago Public Schools, administrators are promoting an abstinence-based program that includes lessons about reproduction, disease prevention, contraceptive use, sexual decision-making and prenatal care.

Yet this program is far from universal. Only 300 Chicago teachers have been trained in this curriculum in the last four years, and only about 40 percent of middle schools and high schools surveyed have adopted this program, an official said.

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Educating the state's children about sex

A survey of Illinois public school teachers identifies what they taught students about sex during the 2003-04 school year.

93% of all Illinois public schools teach sex education in grades 6-12

WHO'S TEACHING SEX EDUCATION

Most who teach sex education focus on other subject areas. Only 1 percent of those surveyed teach sex education as their main topic.

Health teachers: 54%

P.E. teachers: 35%

Biology teachers: 4%

Drivers's ed teachers: 3%

Other 5% (English 2%, Sex education 1%, Math 1%, Other 1%)

Note: Numbers do not equal 100% due to rounding

WHAT'S BEING TAUGHT

Topics range from how to deal with psychological challenges to results of sexual activity.

HIV/AIDS 97%

Abstinence 89%

Pressure to have sex 88%

Birth control 69%

Health services 47%

Sexual orientation 33%

WHAT INFLUENCES TEACHING MATERIAL

More than half of the teachers say their school's curriculum determines what is being taught.

Available curriculum and other resources 52%

Your school 38%

Your school district 35%

Your values 32%

Source: National Opinion Research Center



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