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Sex education is hot topic

March 02, 1999
By: Edward Klump
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 964, SB 163

JEFFERSON CITY - While polls show that most Americans are sick of hearing about sex, the Missouri legislature just can't seem to get enough of it.

Two proposals that would bring new standards to sex education have gained attention at the Capitol in recent weeks.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Ted House, D-St. Charles, would require schools who teach sex education to stress abstinence first. House said his plan would also teach that abstinence is the only guaranteed way to avoid disease or pregnancy.

He said the plan would ban the distribution of contraceptives in school, but not fair and accurate discussions of sex education. House said the complaint that his plan will restrict teaching on other disease and pregnancy preventions is simply not true.

"People say it's abstinence only," he said. "Those people haven't read the bill."

One of the bill's detractors has been Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia. Jacob spoke against the measure last week, and proposed an amendment that included a recommendation for "mutually monogamous" relationships with an uninfected partner.

Rep. Barbara Fraser, D-St. Louis County, also has a proposal that would require schools to meet certain standards if they teach sex education. Her plan would require more information on health and contraception. She said abstinence would be stressed first, but that something needs to be done for those students who haven't chosen it.

"My worry is that the young people who already have had sex, or who are having sex now, must have some information for what to do next," she said.

Fraser, a first-term lawmaker, said her recent experience as a teacher is what led her to seek standards for sex education.

"Teens are involved in sexual activity," she said. "As a teacher and a former school board member, I'm well aware of the kind of information students need about human sexuality."

But both Fraser and House said their proposals are far from a mandate that schools teach certain things. Because sex education is locally-based, the state can't mandate that the subject be taught.

And since the Department of Education can't enforce standards, the nature and depth of sex education varies around the state.

"Districts have to assess their own needs and develop a curriculum on their own," said Sandy Mazzocco, a health and physical education consultant for the department.

She said the state does put out suggested guidelines to help districts. Mazzocco also said her department promotes teaching methods that have proven effective, and that training is available for interested teachers.

The bills probably wouldn't have much of an impact on Columbia public schools. Diane Bruckerhoff, coordinator of health sciences for the district, said Columbia schools already use an abstinence-based curriculum.

"We teach that abstinence is the only 100-percent way to assure health physically and emotionally," she said.

Bruckerhoff said students first learn about human sexuality in the sixth grade, and that more depth is added in the ninth and tenth grades. She said, however, that there is no specific class for sex education.

One person who has seen the results of Missouri's sex education is Maggie Ackerman, health educator at the MU Student Health Center. She said there are so many opinions on what constitutes abstinence that a definition is needed before the state does anything else.

Ackerman said a person's definition depends on whether he or she is talking about morality or simply disease prevention.

"If I work with 25 different students, I have four different definitions," she said.