Over the past few weeks, the nation’s attention has been riveted on the story of an alleged attempted high-school sexual encounter.
The topics of consent and harassment have dominated national headlines, directing attention to the need to talk with young people about sex, and prompting The Beacon to ask how that need is being met in Volusia County public schools.
We found a sex-education curriculum some say is outdated in today’s society. It focuses on the need to prevent pregnancy and disease, but offers little other than abstinence when it comes to exactly how to prevent those consequences.
The curriculum also relies on statistics that in some cases aren’t fully explained and, in one case, an important statistic about condom use that is wrong.
School Board Member Linda Cuthbert said the state of sex education in Volusia County high schools reflects what the community, in the past, has indicated it wants.
“We haven’t evolved yet,” Cuthbert said. “If it’s an issue the community wants us to address, we need community input.”
Florida school districts may design their own sex-education curricula and policies, but the districts have to follow state law requiring that when students are taught about HIV and AIDS, the lessons must set forth an “expected standard of abstinence” from sex and teach the “benefits of monogamous heterosexual marriage.”
Volusia County, along with roughly half of Florida counties, uses an abstinence-plus curriculum, emphasizing avoidance of sex as the only foolproof method of preventing pregnancy and STDs, but providing information about other contraceptive methods.
The curriculum highlights the rates of failure of several contraceptive methods. In the case of condoms, the curriculum states they are 82-percent effective when used correctly.
“And it’s even lower when used incorrectly. … So many people have been surprised by that data,” said Grace Kellermeier, a curriculum specialist with Volusia County Schools and the author of the county’s sex-education lessons.
But the data conflicts with that in most major studies, which list condoms as nearly 100-percent effective when used correctly.
“Yeah, that [82-percent] number is incorrect,” said Dr. Elissa Barr, a professor of public health at the University of North Florida, who taught a workshop for the Florida Department of Education that Kellermeier attended.
Having just come from teaching a class on contraceptives, Barr had the figures readily available.
“It’s 98- to 99-percent effective when used correctly in preventing pregnancy,” she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said, rates condoms as 88-percent effective even when used incorrectly.
“That’s why it’s so important that students are taught how to use contraceptives correctly,” Barr said.
The Beacon reached out to Kellermeier and told her of the apparent discrepancy. Kellermeier said she would immediately modify the information students see going forward.
Do local schools teach the correct way to use a condom?
“That’s too much information,” Kellermeier said. “From adults I’ve spoken to, as well, they’ve been traumatized by such demonstrations. It’s not necessary.”
Barr noted that students exposed to social-media platforms like Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram should be able to handle facts about correct contraceptive use, but she’s familiar with why some school districts avoid such topics.
“A small group of parents can appear as the majority and set the tone in our schools,” Barr said. “Data shows that the majority of parents overwhelmingly support sex education that includes correct use of contraceptives.”
In Volusia County, students are exposed to one sex-education unit presented during a personal-fitness class taken at some point during their four years of high school.
A PowerPoint presentation is shown and discussion is conducted on the first day, and health screenings for vision, hearing and scoliosis are held on the second day. Parents can opt out via a take-home notification letter.
The high-school PowerPoint focuses on basic biology and high rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in Volusia County. Failure rates of contraceptive measures other than abstinence are given.
There is also a discussion of the concept of consent, but it is presented in terms of personal relationships, not sex.
With 3.1 births per 1,000 teen mothers each year, Volusia County has a higher incidence of teen pregnancy than the Florida average of 2.6. The county also just exceeded state average rates for bacterial sexually transmitted infections, according to data from the Florida Department of Health. This information is cited in the high-school sex-ed presentation.
The statistics point to a need, School Board Member Cuthbert said.
“Whenever there is a health issue — life, STD rates, medical marijuana — it all needs to be addressed,” she said.
But the School Board also has to respect the wishes of its constituents.
“We’re more religious-based; it’s more of a personal family choice,” Cuthbert said. “There are families that say it’s none of the schools’ business at all.”
She added, “Obviously this seems to be a need in our children, but we are always mindful about what parents do and do not wish us to do. It’s important we teach the whole child without infringing on parents’ rights.”
Information in the Florida Department of Education’s Sexual Health Education Community Outreach Tool Kit indicates that comprehensive sex-education can make a difference. Manatee County reduced teen pregnancies by 38 percent after adopting a more robust curriculum, for example, and Madison County dramatically reduced the incidence among teens of chlamydia, an STD, with a similar effort.
Dr. Amy Hall, counseling specialist for Volusia County Schools, would like to see the school system engaged in a conversation with parents about the sex-education curriculum.
“We have to be a partner with parents,” Hall said. “We can’t completely shelter a child. If they don’t find out from us or their parents, they’re going to find out from their peers. We need to provide accurate information.”
She added, “The more dialogue the better.”
“If enough parents express a desire, we can make it happen. There are plenty of groups that can assist,” Cuthbert said.