Pennsylvania School District Revises Curriculum: Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Prevails

The West Allegheny School District in Pennsylvania has decided to change its sexuality education curriculum to an abstinence-only-until-marriage program, thereby moving away from discussions about HIV/AIDS and omitting all information about condoms and other methods of contraception.

The sexuality education curriculum was initially devised in the early 1980's out of the school district's concern about the spread of HIV/AIDS. Since January 2000, the District Director of Educational Services for West Allegheny School District has facilitated a committee of parents, teachers, and other community members to discuss changes in the health, physical, and sexuality education curricula.1

The committee members were concerned by statistics in the news media and on the internet that showed a rise in the number of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among youth and decided that the best approach to combat this rise is to teach abstinence. However, according to health district statistics, the rates of STDs in Allegheny County have actually fallen over the past year. Reported gonorrhea cases dropped 22.7% from 2002 to 2003 and reported chlamydia cases (the most commonly reported STD in Allegheny County) dropped 3.6% from 2002 to 2003. Both STDs have the highest rate among people ages 15 to 24 (73% of reported chlamydia cases and 62% of reported gonorrhea cases).2

According to the District Director, "We want to protect students. We're taking the approach that the only way to prevent getting a disease is not participating in the activities that put you at risk." He argued that information about condoms and contraception needs to be taught at home.3 One committee member, who is also the mother of students in the district, stated that she agreed with the abstinence-only-until-marriage policy because "that's what's taught in the Bible."4

Brenda Green, vice president of education with Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania explained that the abstinence-only-until-marriage approach can actually harm youth. "When you do abstinence-only, especially when it is fear-based, I think you're medically putting kids at risk," Green said.5 Pennsylvania's own evaluations of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have shown them to be ineffective.6

In a Letter to the Editor published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on August 18, Bill Smith, SIECUS' director of public policy said, "Rather than deal with the reality of what teenagers must face in their daily lives, those in a position of power in the school district have collectively buried their heads in the sand and abandoned their responsibilities in helping young people become healthy, educated adults."7

In June, the Allegheny County Health Department released a survey of nearly 5,000 households throughout the county. Of survey participants, 94% said that comprehensive sexuality education should be offered in schools.8

Nonetheless, that month the school board adopted the committee's recommendations. Neither the committee nor the school board has developed a formal policy about how teachers or guidance counselors should respond if students ask questions about condoms or contraceptives. The District Director suggested that if such a situation arises the teacher or guidance counselor should "redirect" the student towards remaining abstinent.9

More information on health statistics in Allegheny County.

More information about West Allegheny school district.

More information about the June 2004 survey, please see the Allegheny County Health Department's report.

References

  1. A. Iglar. "Schools' sex education to focus on disease, promote abstinence." Pittsburgh Post Gazette. August 11, 2004. Available online.
  2. T. Curges et al. Sexually Transmitted Diseases, HIV/AIDS in Allegheny County: A Statistical Summary Report 2003. Allegheny County Health Department, March 2004. Available online on August 26, 2004.
  3. A. Iglar
  4. R. Sharma et al. Behavior Health Risk System - Report 5. Allegheny County Health Department. Accessed online on August 26, 2004.
  5. A. Iglar.
  6. W. Smith. "Abstinence program abandons responsibility," Pittsburgh Post Gazette, August 18, 2004. Available online.
  7. A. Iglar.
  8. Ibid.

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