The More You Know

Winter 2016

Adolescent Health Project Advocates for Comprehensive Sex Education

BY SARAH WENGERT

Brenda Council, Adolescent Health Project Coordinator, Women’s Fund of Omaha

If you live in Omaha, chances are you’ve seen some striking billboards around town this past year. These weren’t signs selling cars or beckoning you to stop in for a burger. They requested something much more important: Your attention to long-standing epidemic rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in Douglas County.

If billboards proclaiming “His and Herpes” or “Ignorance is Blisters,” in warted, fleshy bubble letters caught your attention and prompted conversation, then the Adolescent Health Project (AHP)—an initiative of the Women’s Fund of Omaha—met its objective of raising awareness through this distinctive media campaign.

Brenda J. Council, adolescent health coordinator at the Women’s Fund, says that if people aren’t aware of an issue, moved to discuss it, and compelled to care about it, they typically won’t do anything about it.

“Clearly, for [Douglas County] to have 17 consecutive years of STD rates exceeding the national average, nobody is talking about it,” she says.

But awareness is just one component of the AHP’s important work, which also includes advocating for comprehensive sex education in schools.

“Our first goal under the project is to assist Omaha Public Schools (OPS) in updating their sex education curriculum, which is found in their Human Growth and Development (HGD) course,” Council says. “That’s a curriculum that has not had a major update in 30 years.”

And yet anyone who reads the newspaper or watches the news knows there has been some local controversy surrounding the proposed curriculum update. Advocates believe comprehensive sex education in OPS will increase knowledge among local youth, thereby decreasing STD and teen pregnancy rates. Those opposed to the changes aren’t convinced.
Comprehensive sexual education advocates say they have more than just beliefs on their side—they also have research strongly supporting their position.

“What sets this project apart from others like it is how much everything we’ve done is grounded in research,” Council says. “The push for updating and providing age-appropriate, medically accurate, comprehensive sex education is based in research, because research shows that in terms of universal prevention strategies—those that apply to youth across the spectrum of risk, from no risk to high risk—comprehensive sex education is the most effective prevention measure.”

Public health experts also stress the importance of heeding the research, and also call for comprehensive sex education.

“The research is clear: People who want to prevent youth from having sex, getting pregnant and getting STDs should wholeheartedly support comprehensive sex education, because it is by far more effective than abstinence-only education or no education at all,” says Melissa Tibbits, Ph.D., assistant professor, UNMC College of Public Health and AHP advisory board member. “Given that more than half of youth have sex by the time they graduate from high school—and our community is plagued by extremely high STD rates—it is unethical to withhold school-based comprehensive sex education from youth.”

Sofia Jawed Wessel

Sofia Jawed-Wessel, Ph.D, Assistant Professor at UNO and Associate Director of the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative (MSHRC)

Sofia Jawed-Wessel, Ph.D., assistant professor at UNO and associate director of the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative (MSHRC), echoes the importance of comprehensive sex education, breaking down its importance to her as a parent, educator and public health advocate.

“As a public health advocate, I know the harm that an outdated sex ed curriculum can have on an entire community. The impact of teen pregnancy, untreated STDs, lack of knowledge on consent and healthy relationships, as well as ignoring sexual and gender identities, negatively affects us all. There are major economic and social consequences at stake,” she says. “As a parent, I want my children to have access to the best information possible and that requires updating the [sex education] curriculum. I do not want to spend the four hours I have with them after school undoing the harm of an outdated or incomplete sex ed program.”

Jawed-Wessel says her children are lucky to have the benefit of a mother who is highly educated in terms of sexual health, but she wants her children’s peers to be equally empowered for the betterment and protection of all.

“Think of it as herd immunity: My child is less likely to contract an STD or have to shoulder the burden of negotiating safe sexual practices if his peers are equally informed,” she says.
Some opposed to the updated OPS curriculum have stated in public forums that they want to be the ones to teach their kids about sex, not OPS. However, a recent study to determine the sexual literacy of adults in Nebraska showed that only 62 percent of adults in the state were sexually literate.

“We say parents should be talking to their kids about sex, but if they don’t know what they’re talking about it’s worse than not talking to them at all,” Council says.

As an educator, Jawed-Wessel says it’s “the duty of schools to present students with the best, most accurate information available”—regardless the subject.

“Could you imagine if we were teaching outdated principles of biology or using literacy methods that we knew didn’t work? Why is sex education any different? We have better information and therefore, we should present it,” she says.

Lou Ann Goding OPS Board President

Lou Ann Goding, Omaha Public Schools Board of Education President

Lou Ann Goding, Omaha Public Schools Board of Education president, says that curriculum updates typically occur about every seven years, providing stark contrast to OPS’ 30-year-old sex education curriculum.

“When I think about the curriculum we have today, I think about where technology was 30 years ago,” says Goding, describing a time before the internet was heavily used by the average consumer and social media didn’t exist.

“When I consider what our students are faced with—information on the internet, which may or may not be accurate—social media, their friends, television, movies and other such things that have changed dramatically in the last 30 years—I think it’s extremely important that we provide medically accurate, age-appropriate information so they have the tools they need in their tool belt,” Goding says. “I am, of course, always a proponent for abstinence and believe that’s the best choice for students. But I also recognize that not every student will make that choice, and in that case, we want to make sure that they have the information they need.”

Goding also says it’s important to consider other crucial topics being considered for introduction into HGD standards, like the dangers of sex trafficking and information on refusal techniques.

Marian Fey, OPS Board Member Comprehensive Sex Ed.

Marian Fey, Omaha Public Schools Board of Education Member

“The district updates other curricular standards regularly, and no academic area should go without a review for decades,” says Marian Fey, Omaha Public Schools Board of Education, District 3. “A community always benefits when its citizenry is armed with facts and can make decisions based on thoughtful, thorough discussions and understanding of the issues. Our students should be encouraged to ask tough questions and explore provocative topics that are not only relevant, but a very real part of the world today. As leaders and educators, we can’t be afraid of what our young people are already exposed to. We need to be ground zero for the truth.”

“This is a public health issue that requires bold leadership,” echoes Adi Pour, Ph.D., Douglas County Health Department director and AHP advisory board member. In 2004, The Douglas County Board of Health declared the rate of STDs, particularly chlamydia, at epidemic proportion unacceptable for the community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2014 STD Surveillance Report, the rate of chlamydia in Douglas County was the 16th highest among all United States counties and large cities.
Pour says such statistics should move the community to work together to make a change.

“STDs are a public health problem that lack easy solutions,” she says “To successfully prevent STDs, a multifaceted approach is necessary at both individual and community levels, and schools have an important part to play. All community members must do their part—including parents, healthcare providers, teachers and public health professionals. Comprehensive sex education presents all options for preventing STDs—including abstinence—along with skills such as goal setting and avoiding risky sexual situations. It’s a medically accurate, age-appropriate curriculum that emphasizes the role of abstinence.”

So, if experts and community leaders are aligned, with support from robust research indicating the need for comprehensive sex education, why has the idea of updating curriculum from the mid-1980s caused such a firestorm? Many say it’s due simply to public misinformation.

“I think that there are people willfully spreading misinformation on both what comprehensive sex education is and what OPS is hoping to add to the curriculum, and this is incredibly unethical,” says Jawed-Wessel. “I say willfully because the school board and OPS educators have tirelessly presented the community with information clearly showing that many of the concerns that have been voiced are unfounded. And I say unethical because misinformation produces fear and panic. We saw this clearly at the [October 2015] OPS forum. Fear and panic are keeping many of our parents from seeing their options and the benefits of updating the curriculum.”

Council says the majority of the controversy stems from a lack of knowledge about the reality of proposed updates.

“A lot of it also comes from people who want to project their personal religious values on everyone else,” says Council, who has attended the same North Omaha church for 48 years. “My response to that is I respect you and your personal religious values, and if you don’t want your youngster to be exposed to this course, opt them out. You have that right.”

Council says proposed LGBTQ lessons, for example, are being opposed by some due to personal beliefs.

“The problem with that is it ignores the fact that these young people are human beings in a public school setting who deserve to receive the same type of information and protection that we provide to all our kids,” Council says. “If you’ve got a segment of our students who are coming in who are not viewed as a part of the process, then those students become disengaged.”

In addition to religious concerns, some in the community have voiced fears that learning facts about their bodies and sex will encourage students not to abstain —a concern largely invalidated by research on that subject.

Dr Melissa Tibbits

Melissa Tibbits, Ph.D, Assistant Professor, UNMC College of Public Health and AHP Advisory Board Member

“The research is very clear in indicating that talking about sex—including discussing condoms and birth control—does not cause sex, and that not talking about sex doesn’t prevent sex,” says Tibbits, who encourages parents to start conversations about sex early on and to “consider comprehensive sex education in the schools as a resource aimed at helping youth remain healthy so that they are able to succeed in school and reach their long-term goals.”

Another concern voiced by some opposed to comprehensive sexual education is that it simply does not belong in schools and is not academically relevant. Again, research dispels this concern.

“There are plenty of studies to show the impact of teen pregnancy, illness, sexual abuse, harassment and bullying—particularly of LGBT students—on academic achievement,” Fey says. “Additionally, we know that even in small ways, support from the school can help reverse the negative effects. All our teachers, counselors and administrators should be, at a minimum, knowledgeable about local support services for mental and physical health, as well as the range of services available for LGBT youth and families.”

Other widely circulated falsehoods included the idea that the proposed updates to OPS’ 30-year-old sex education curriculum were written by Planned Parenthood, and that it would teach kindergartners masturbation techniques and sexual positions.

Council says each of those accusations are blatantly untrue. But if you don’t believe her, or the OPS board members who would echo her, information on the district’s proposed updates is available on OPS’ website, alongside an HGD FAQ sheet stating that the course isn’t even offered until fourth grade, with parent permission.

“It has to be age appropriate,” Council says. “I don’t want to teach elementary students about contraception, but I do want to teach them about themselves and the changes coming to their body.”

If concerned parents have eliminated all misinformation and still remain uncomfortable with their children receiving comprehensive sexual health education, they can, of course, opt their student(s) out. Goding says students can opt out of the entire course, and also have the flexibility to take the course but opt out of one or more specific lessons.

“I would encourage all parents to have frank, open discussions with their children about adolescent health, consequences of risky behavior and the importance of having a strong value system,” says Pour, adding that there are resources available for parents uncomfortable with such dialogues. “But don’t stand in the way of giving everyone the opportunity to get correct information to make the right choices—we owe it to our youth. The alternative is not an option.”

Council says that this is what gets lost in the controversy and inflammatory remarks: Comprehensive sex education at the very core is abstinence. “There is no comprehensive sex education curriculum on the market that does not promote abstinence as the 100 percent most-effective way to avoid STDs or teen pregnancy. But the intent is developing well-rounded, capable, sound-decision-making young people.”

So, what do the young people in question have to say about all of this?

Cecily Taylor, a senior at Omaha Central High School who has been closely following the debate surrounding proposed updates to OPS’ sex ed curriculum, thinks she and her peers deserve access to information that will help keep them safe.

“I feel like it should be a required thing, because it’s teaching you how your body functions and how to be sexually healthy,” she says. “It also affects everyone around you.”

Taylor, who loves art, music and volleyball, says she’s always had a very comfortable relationship discussing sexual health with her family, including an aunt who is a nurse and “knows what’s up.” Taylor has taken on the role of informal advisor for peers who are less comfortable seeking information from parents, and she and a friend are even working on a sexual education magazine to help more teens. Taylor is also a member of Planned Parenthood’s Teen Council, a group that lets teens have dialogue about sexual health with their peers, and which Taylor highly recommends as a resource for teens. The group also helps advise local organizations, providing an important youth perspective to consider when they create policies and programs.

“I think kids are often scared to ask adults questions or discuss issues with them,” she says. “I wasn’t always comfortable enough to talk with adults or ask medical professionals, but if you’re getting accurate info from someone you can relate to, it really helps.”

Taylor emphasizes that kids should not be taught to fear knowledge of sex and their bodies.

“Especially since we live in a county with such high STD rates, parents shouldn’t turn their children away from something that’s going to help them in life,” she says. “I don’t think parents want their kids going into the world completely blind, and with sexual education, that is something that’s happening. Denying them important education isn’t helping them in the long run and it can also make the world less safe for all of us.”

The AHP has conducted two rounds of important interviews with area youth, which shed light on what local teens know about sex and where they turn for information.

“One thing that was clear in both rounds of interviews we’ve done was how much young people look to the schools to provide them with the info they need about STD and pregnancy prevention,” says Council. “They very often don’t see talking to their parents as an option, so they look to the schools.”

In a round of youth interviews Tibbits conducted in summer 2015, she asked, “What more should schools do to help prevent STDs and teen pregnancy?”

“Nearly all (students) said schools should provide more detail about topics such as specific STDs and specific types of contraception,” says Tibbits. “No youth said the schools should teach an abstinence-only curriculum.”

Council adds that the need for an update to OPS’ 30-year-old sex ed curriculum is made further evident in many of the youth interviews conducted by the AHP.

“When you ask them about STDs, they can’t talk to you intelligently about particular STDs and their prevalence—whether they’re symptomatic or asymptomatic. That is a problem, particularly when you look at Douglas County STD rates,” Council says.

For Council, adolescent sexual health has been an important issue throughout her career. In fact, she led the successful effort to originally instate HGD education in OPS, which began in the 1986/1987 school year.

“I was on the OPS Board of Education when we first implemented sex education,” she says. “I fought for it then and I’m fighting for a better sex education curriculum now. The research is clear: In communities with comprehensive sex education programs in place, they see young people delaying their first sexual encounter longer than their counterparts who don’t have comprehensive sex education. You also see them having fewer multiple partners compared to their counterparts, and they’re less likely to experience a pregnancy before they graduate from high school.”

Other unsettling stats among local youth sexual health data show even worse outcomes for African American and Hispanic students.

“[In Douglas County] African Americans and Latinas are five times more likely to become pregnant as a teen than their white counterparts,” says Council. “We’ve got to address that, particularly when you look at it in connection with poverty rates among those populations being among the highest in the nation.”

In addition to racial and ethnic disparities involving teen pregnancy, statistics show that in Douglas County—which has some of the nation’s highest gonorrhea and chlamydia rates, with the bulk of those cases in ages 15 to 24—chlamydia rates are 10 times higher for African Americans than their white counterparts.

“We’ve got to protect these young people’s futures so that all of us can have a future,” Council says.

When talking about this issue in the community, Jawed-Wessel reminds people that the new proposed updates to the OPS curriculum were not created on a whim.

“Educators, parents, students and other experts have been included in this long process and have incorporated rigorous research and comments from the community,” she says. “I cannot emphasize enough that the individuals and organizations that have been a part of this process do not have a hidden agenda. Comprehensive sex education is not a conspiracy to take power away from parents. It establishes a foundation of information for parents to use to begin conversations around sexuality.

“What is discussed in the schools is the start of the dialogue, not the end. It is up to parents to take what the students are learning and use it to define their family’s values and help their children make informed decisions.” W

OPS Board of Education Votes to Update CSE Standards

On January 20, the Omaha Public Schools (OPS) Board of Education voted in favor of adopting the updated sex education curriculum standards as originally proposed. The Women’s Fund applauds the Board for their diligent regard for the best interests of OPS students by giving them age-appropriate, medically-accurate information that will empower them to make informed decisions regarding their sexual health.

This favorable outcome would not have been achieved without the health and education professionals, community partners, OPS parents, OPS youth advocates, and others who supported this effort by attending and testifying at Board meetings, writing and calling Board members, and engaging their friends and neighbors. Thank you all for working to improve our community by safeguarding the health and well-being of our youth!

As we celebrate this initial success, we can’t forget that there is much work that lies ahead. We encourage everyone who supports comprehensive sex education for OPS students to continue advocating by communicating your support for the selection of a curriculum that appropriately aligns with the updated standards to the OPS Board of Education.

To learn more, visit GetCheckedOmaha.com.

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