On Monday night, two teenagers in the Midwest stood before their city’s school board and essentially pleaded that the grown-ups in charge change how sex education is taught in their district.
Their courage was a timely reminder that we ignore our children at their peril.
The first student to speak in the room of 150 or so in attendance was 17-year-old Daniel Sparks.
Teenage boys don’t come any more clean-cut or poised than Danny. In a strong, steady voice, the high-school junior in Parma, Ohio, Cleveland’s largest suburb, attacked the district’s abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education program taught by Operation Keepsake.
The program may sound like a military exercise, but it sends kids virtually unarmed into a sexually complex and potentially dangerous world.
This, Daniel told the school board, is poor public health.
“Operation Keepsake has made me question education as a whole, for while they scared us into understanding what could go wrong, they afforded us no information on how things could go right,” he said. “On how to protect ourselves, on the effectiveness of contraception, and empowering us with knowledge to make the right decisions before making the wrong ones.”
Daniel told the board that for 19 months, he has been unable to meet or even speak with those responsible for making decisions about how he and his classmates learn about sex, despite his dozens of letters, phone calls and e-mails.
“As a gay student,” he asked, “how can I be expected to uphold a standard of abstinence until marriage when I live in a state where I cannot marry?” Daniel’s classmate who spoke, 16-year-old Jelena Loncar, borrowed from Operation Keepsake’s own language to blast the curriculum for promoting gender stereotypes.
“I personally don’t view men as predators or protectors,” she said. “And I certainly don’t view myself as a treasure or a target. I found it insulting and undermining that Operation Keepsake reduced me to a social stereotype.”
Daniel and Jelena added that they are abstinent, but only because access to comprehensive sex education elsewhere helped them make informed and confident choices for their young lives.
The audience was respectful during the students’ speeches. There were audible gasps only after Jelena pointed out that in her high school’s sophomore class alone, eight girls are pregnant.
Several parents came up afterward to congratulate the teenagers for their courage and to voice support. The superintendent assured Daniel that she will meet with him. She told me later she favors comprehensive sex education and will form a committee to “start the conversation.”
Most parents — liberal, conservative and somewhere in between — want their children to abstain from sex, but they also want them to be safe if they choose otherwise. The overwhelming majority of studies have shown, time and again, that abstinence-plus education is more effective than programs like Operation Keepsake.
Abstinence-only proponents are heralding a small study published earlier this month in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine that showed for the first time that their brand of sex education reduced sexual activity by nearly a third in 12- and 13-year-olds. The study involved 662 African-American middle-school students in four low-income schools in the Northeast.
An editorial accompanying the report cautioned against reading too much into this, and the study’s lead author, psychologist John B. Jemmott III, agreed.
“Policy should not be based on just one study, but an accumulation of empirical findings from several well-designed, well-executed studies,” Jemmott wrote.
Meanwhile, let’s keep this in mind: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported only three months ago that chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis continue to spread in the United States and that almost half of the 19 million new sexually transmitted infections each year affect 15- to 24-year-olds.
“We have among the highest rates of STDs of any developed country in the world,” John Douglas, director of the division of sexually transmitted diseases at the CDC, told Reuters.
“We haven’t been promoting the full battery of messages,” Douglas said. “We have been sending people out with one seat belt in the whole car.”
When it comes to protecting our kids, perhaps we need more teenagers like Daniel Sparks and Jelena Loncar in the driver’s seat.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books from Random House, “Life Happens” and “… and His Lovely Wife.” She is a featured contributor in a recently released book by Bloomsbury, “The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s ‘A More Perfect Union.'”
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