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Legislative report on sex education policies compares Louisiana with other states

31st March 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Harden
Contributing Writer

When it comes to giving young people the tools they need to be sexually responsible young adults, Dr. Mark Alain Dery uses the analogy of getting a driver’s license.

First, you must learn how to drive. Otherwise, you will crash.

Dery is an assistant professor of Clinical Medicine at the Tulane University Center for Infectious Diseases, the medical director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program, and the Baton Rouge Medical Center Director for the Tulane T-Cell Clinic.

A new Louisiana legislative report backs up Dery’s analogy with data.

The first key finding states that “Where sexual health education is mandated in schools, STI [sexually transmitted infections] and teen birth rates are lower.”

This isn’t news to Dery. He can point to a multitude of evidence-based reports that say the exact same thing.

The task force report, commissioned through House Concurrent Resolution 90, looks at data in all 50 states, but also measures Louisiana against five other states with comparable demographic and socio-economic profiles.

The findings also show that “Abstinence was emphasized in all comparison states, but states that provided additional components of sexual health education had lower rates of STI’s and teen births.”

Looking at the sex-ed policies and related STI and teen birth rates in Georgia, Mississippi, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Tennessee, the report found that “All states, except Mississippi, perform better than Louisiana and Mississippi is the only state that has an abstinence-only approach.”

Of the six, Louisiana is the only state that does not have a statewide policy that mandates sex-ed in public schools. Mississippi implemented their policy in 2011.

Under existing law, sex education in public schools is not mandated but legal beginning in the seventh grade (fifth grade in New Orleans), but requires that abstinence be emphasized, and it is not required to be medically accurate.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, has been trying for years to push through legislation that will give public school students access to a medically accurate sexual health education program. The most recent plan she sponsored, House Bill 369, was filed March 10 and is awaiting a committee hearing.

Similar bills have failed at three other votes since 2010. In 2012, Smith’s proposal failed after a 9-9 vote, after which Smith claimed that House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, was pressured into a “no” vote by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office after having previously voting in favor. Carter denied the allegations.

Jindal’s office has said in published statements that they will again oppose Smith’s bill.

Her proposal allows parents to opt out, requires information to be age appropriate and medically accurate, and includes “information stressing that abstinence is the most reliable way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”

Smith likens the hindering of public education, and not giving young people medically accurate information regarding sexual health, to a form of child abuse.

“Dery is also outraged by what he sees as the refusal of the majority of Louisiana legislators to make evidence-based decisions that could significantly improve the health and futures of young people. He calls the way Jindal is acting “shameful.” “He cares more about his political ambitions than he cares about the well being of people,” he said.

Not only does the data show that the abstinence–only approach does not lead to fewer STIs, it is also unrealistic, Dery says.

Our role as humans is to reproduce, Dery says, and no amount of denying this fact will change what is an innate, evolutionary-driven and powerful human desire.

If the data suggests teenagers are going to engage in sexual behaviors regardless of the information they are getting or not getting, then “why not give them the information they need to protect themselves?” Smith asked.

Smith said that the argument that sex-ed leads to more sex is simply untrue – and can be shown in the data showing that states with comprehensive sex-ed mandates have lower teen birth and STI rates.

Dery has worked on research showing possible links between abstinence-only sex education in public schools and higher rates of HIV.

“We need to teach young people how to take care of themselves,” Dery said.
Dery emphasizes that it is crucial that the education be age appropriate, but also true. Tactics of scaring young people about the dangers of sex and pregnancy with medically inaccurate lies does not lead to healthier and more sexually responsible young people, he said.

“When you actually tell kids the truth, they listen. Especially when it comes to sex.”

Dery points to the Europeans as having a much more science and reason-based approach to teaching kids about their bodies and what to expect as they enter adolescence and adulthood. He said he loves that they refer to that education as a “human right.”

According to the task force report: “United States teenagers have significantly higher prevalence raters of sexually transmitted infections, Human Immuno­deficiency Virus (HIV), teen pregnancy and abortion than other developed countries. Surveillance suggests that one in four adolescent females who are sexually active have an STI, and of the 20 million cases of STIs that occur in the US each year, almost half occur among young people under the age of 25. When youth do not know the risk factors for contracting STIs and are unaware of the symptoms, the are more likely to remain undiagnosed and untested, putting them at risk for developing significant long-term health issues.”

And, like so many other national contests concerning health and education, Louisiana ranks among the worst for STIs, HIV and teen pregnancy. In 2012, Louisiana took second place for rates of gonorrhea, third for primary and secondary syphilis, and fourth for chlamydia. And, “with infections among youth representing the majority of new infections.”

Smith calls it a pandemic.

In 2011, Louisiana took third place for the highest rate of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S., also showing an increase in newly diagnosed people under the age of 25, and with indications that a large percentage of people were infected for many years before being tested for HIV.

For teen birth rates, Louisiana ranked sixth-highest in the country in 2011.

The consequences of not facing these numbers authentically and with political will are devastating, Dery said. “We could have done something about HIV if we’d faced it head on right out of the gates. But we didn’t.”

Today someone in the U.S. is infected with HIV, on average, about every nine minutes.

“We know what to do, and we are not doing it,” Dery said, of the fight against HIV, and the fight to put comprehensive sexual health education in public schools in Louisiana in order to reduce the rates of STIs in young people.

The only way to change what Dery sees as a grossly unacceptable and detrimental status quo is “legally or through the pocket book.”

Dery has testified in Baton Rouge, and is in the process of launching a radio station – Radio NOLA HIV – to raise awareness, destigmatize HIV, give young people a chance to talk to each other and learn how to run a radio station, and “provide a voice for a community that desperately needs one, but doesn’t have a voice.”

Also a musician, Dery holds concerts and fundraisers, and said he would sue the state if he could find the right plank.

The first recommendation of the task force report states that “evidence-based, medically accurate, age appropriate, comprehensive sexual health education should be mandated in public schools starting in 5th grade statewide; and all LEA’s should have the option to start sexual health education in 3rd grade.” The recommendation also details that “Sexual health education is particularly important at young ages to provide young children with critical information needed to more effectively respond to inappropriate sexual behaviors of adults.”

In January, the final report was approved with a vote count of six yeses, one no, and two abstentions. The single no vote came from the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE).

According to a prepared statement from LDOE spokesman Barry Landry: “BESE has consistently supported the ability of schools to exercise autonomy in working with parents and their local communities on teaching such subject matters. The Department staff’s vote on the referenced task force report reflected the board’s longstanding position for local school leaders to work with their parents and communities.”

Smith argues that not all kids have parental access, that parents don’t always talk to their kids, and that trained health professionals can provide accurate information.

She said the state government likely didn’t want the information in the report to come out, in that it shows a disservice being done to kids.

Another voice in opposition of Bill 369 comes from the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops. Associate director Rob Tasman said that because of the large number of Catholic public school students, the organization felt the need to provide a voice in support of the system already in place.

Tasman said the conference supports an abstinence-only approach, and that when sex education is taught in the context of public schools, there is no mention of morality.

He said that their position is not against science, and that in Catholic schools they don’t shy away from biological facts, but that the teachings are aligned not with social norms but with maintaining the “highest moral authority.”

Tasman also noted that their opposition of the bill is in no way to be misconstrued as a lack of concern for the “grave” issues of health facing Louisiana, and that the Catholic Church in many ways reaches out to people suffering from disease.

He called Smith, also a Catholic, a champion of her district and her people.

This time around, as Smith awaits a hearing date, she remains optimistic. She said she has faith in her colleagues to make a change for the better and put children first.

This article originally published in the March 31, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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