Report: Most SC schools fail to comply with sex ed law

Jself@thestate.comJanuary 30, 2013 

— Three out of four South Carolina school districts fail to comply with a state law outlining how they should teach sex education, according to a report released this month.

Additionally, that law, the report contends, is flawed, providing little oversight of what districts are teaching in sex ed classes, and needs to be rewritten.

Rock Hill schools have not filed the required report with the state for three years, according to the report, “A Sterling Opportunity: 25 Years After the Comprehensive Health Education Act” by the New Morning Foundation, a Columbia-based health-and-sex education advocacy group.

School districts in Fort Mill, York and Chester and Lancaster counties are in compliance with the law, according to the survey.

Rich Melzer, executive director for elementary education for the Rock Hill schools, said the district became aware it had not filed the report when it received the FOIA request from the New Morning Foundation.

He said they have now filed the necessary paperwork with the state Department of Education.

Melzer said the school has developed it’s own curriculum for sex education to meet the standards of the Health Education Act.

The curriculum includes instruction on reproductive health and pregnancy prevention in the high schools and instruction on the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS in middle schools. He said the system meets the standards for a minimum of 750 minutes of instruction on health and pregnancy prevention in high schools.

To keep teachers current on the material, the school district has an arrangement with Catawba Mental Health, he said.

The Rock Hill school district also is apparently in violation of the requirement to have a 13-member Health Education Advisory Committee.

District spokeswoman Elaine Baker said the district has a 66-member wellness committee that addresses issues such as nutrition, physical activity and health practices, but not sex education specifically.

The law requires each local school board to appoint a 13-member local advisory committee consisting of two parents, three clergy, two health professionals, two teachers, two students, one being the president of the student body of a high school, and two other persons not employed by the local school district.

Baker said the school district did have a Health Education Committee several years ago, but it is not active now.

Almost one in five S.C. school districts did not make that required filing of an annual survey from the state Department of Education. But those school districts do not face any consequences for failing to make the report, state education leaders say.

It is difficult to know what S.C. students are learning in their sex-ed classes because districts use the “honor system” to report what they are teaching, said Emma Davidson with the New Morning Foundation, a privately funded, self-described nonpartisan group committed to decreasing unintended pregnancies among people younger than 30 and limiting the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Concerned about the lack of state oversight and the state’s higher-than-average teen birth rate, the New Morning Foundation is pushing lawmakers to revisit the state’s 1988 Comprehensive Education Act. That law required teaching sex education.

“The Comprehensive Health Education Act, as written, has significant weaknesses,” Davidson said. “There’s no way to verify if teachers are spending time explaining the basics of reproductive health” or “if students are learning that condoms prevent pregnancy and STDs.

“There’s no way to ensure that sex education lessons are based on medically accurate facts or if personal opinions, religious beliefs and other non-scientific perspectives have made their way into the classroom.”

The 1988 law requires districts to:

• Teach high school students about reproductive health and pregnancy prevention for a minimum of 750 minutes in the ninth through 12th grades

• Teach middle school students about sexually transmitted diseases and HIV prevention

• Provide health education teachers with staff development opportunities

• Form a health education advisory committee consisting of 13 members, including students

• Send an annual report detailing whether the district is complying with the law to the S.C. Department of Education

Some decisions on classroom materials and topics to be covered are left to district discretion. The result, Davidson said, is students attending schools in neighboring districts could receive very different information in their sex ed classes.

The foundation’s report is based in part on school districts’ 2011 responses to an Education Department sex-ed survey. Only 81 percent of the state’s 85 school districts responded to that survey. Five school districts had not responded to the survey in three years, according to the Education Department.

Reporting errors aside, not all districts know the law or what is required of them, New Morning’s Davidson said.

The foundation recommends lawmakers take steps to ensure students are receiving quality, consistent information and districts know what is expected of them. It also recommends requiring districts to report detailed instructional practices and set minimum hours for staff development.

The foundation also would like to see changes in the law’s language, including its current requirement that contraception always be discussed in the context of “future family planning.”

That language “implies that no unmarried persons are sexually active, and ignores the fact that the majority of high school seniors in South Carolina report having engaged in sexual activity,” according to the report.

Almost 60 percent of teens have had sex by the time they are high school seniors, research shows. The abstinence-only approach to sex ed has not reduced that number, the report says.

State schools chief Mick Zais agrees with only one of the foundation’s recommendations: School districts that fail to comply with the law need to be held accountable, Education Department spokesman Jay Ragley said.

Nothing in the current law provides penalties for districts that do not comply it, he said. The result is some school districts do not report anything to the state.

The Herald’s Don Worthington contributed

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