Sex? Systems vary on what to say

Staff WriterDecember 14, 2005 

Mark Kadlecik's health classroom at East Chapel Hill High School looks pretty typical, down to the "Your Brain on Cocaine" poster.

But next semester, Kadlecik will do something that would be taboo in most schools outside the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School system. Using a model of the male reproductive organ, he will teach 10th-graders the right way to put on a condom.

"I tell them, 'We're going to talk about a mature topic,' " Kadlecik said. "They buy into it."

The condom demonstration is just one way the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system departs from the state's philosophy on sex education.

All lessons, under a state statute, should stress a "mutually faithful monogamous heterosexual relationship in the context of marriage." Called the "abstinence only" approach, it's at the core of sex ed in more than 100 of North Carolina's 117 school systems. Lessons on contraception methods stress their potential to fail.

School systems in which contraceptives are discussed more openly -- the "comprehensive" approach to sex education -- also are required to tell students that abstinence is the only foolproof way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

But when it comes to discussing birth control, abortion and even sexual orientation, teachers in comprehensive sex-ed school systems can be much more direct.

Questions of referrals

When Kadlecik worked in the Alamance-Burlington Schools, where abstinence-only is the rule, a student once asked him which brand of condom was the best.

He gave his all-purpose answer to off-limits questions: "You'll have to ask your parents."

If asked the same question by an East Chapel Hill High student, Kadlecik said he'd tell him to go with a major brand and avoid lesser-known brands you might find at truck stops.

But to allow Kadlecik's latter answer, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system had to get a waiver.

In 1995, the state started requiring all school systems choosing the comprehensive route to hold public hearings and make all lesson material open to parents' review. In the Triangle, only the Durham and Chapel Hill-Carrboro districts have gone through that process.

"Some people feel like talking about contraception gives a mixed message," said Stephanie Willis, health director for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro system. "We feel like it gives students a more informed message."

School districts that haven't gone through public hearings "really shouldn't be talking about contraception," said Sarah Langer, a consultant with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

"The No. 1 state rule is: You will teach abstinence until marriage as the expected standard for school-age children," she said. "Contraception offers another standard."

Even abstinence-only school systems are supposed to declare whether they refer students' questions about contraception or birth control to outside agencies, such as a county health department. But more than half the state's school districts have no policy on referrals, Langer said. Of those that do, "Most say, 'No, you can't do referrals,' " she said.

Referrals aren't just for abstinence-only schools. Durham often refers students to the county health department, said Larry McDonald, the school system's health and athletics director.

"With the health department, we feel like we're giving students everything they need to make informed decisions," he said.

Federal funds tailored

Despite the state's message, abstinence until marriage is not the norm. About 53 percent of North Carolina high school students have had sexual intercourse, according to a 2003 study conducted by the national Centers for Disease Control.

"The reality is that not all students abstain from sexual activity," Willis said. "We want our teachers to be equipped to discuss how students' decisions affect their health."

Kadlecik said he also discusses homosexuality, which the abstinence-only model broaches only as a health risk.

Despite Chapel Hill-Carrboro's detours from the abstinence-only approach, it taps federal "Abstinence Until Marriage" funds. The money, meant to promote teaching abstinence before marriage as the chief expectation, can't be used on programs that use the comprehensive approach.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro system, which insists it is not anti-abstinence, uses the money only on programs that don't broach the touchier issues in sex ed.

For example, as it has in previous years, the school system will likely spend most of this year's $7,250 request on "Baby, Think It Over" dolls. Eighth-graders, who keep the dolls for at least 24 hours, simulate bottle-feeding it. If they don't keep it fed -- or if they handle it roughly -- health teachers can find out via a computer inside the doll. The message to students is clear: Abstain from sex or risk dealing with a baby that you can't return after one day.

"We do value abstinence. We think students should abstain for their personal well-being," Willis said. "We just don't close the door to a question if the issue needs to be addressed."

By the numbers

According to a state Department of Education survey conducted earlier this year:

98 - Percent of parents who think the basics of reproduction should be taught in school

91 - Percent of parents who think abstinence until marriage should be taught

80 - Percent of parents who think schools should teach about condom use

57 - Percent of parents who think schools should have classroom demonstrations on how to use a condom correctly

(N.C. DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC INSTRUCTION)

Staff writer Patrick Winn can be reached at 932-8742 or pwinn@nando.com.

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