No one was surprised last week when news broke that a small-town school without a sex education program was teeming with chlamydia. Unfortunately, that story has proven to be false, leaving a tiny Texas town traumatized with embarrassment over an error reported as fact by the school’s superintendent.
Vice reports that after Jim Rumage sent home a notice stating that 20 students had contracted chlamydia (that’s about one in 15 for the school), national news media descended upon Crane, Texas to report what was going on. The Centers for Disease Control referred to such an epidemic as “reaching epic proportions,” and all across the country people (like us) shook their heads at what a lack of education could do. But Rumage, who told Vice he thought he was “acting prudently” made one fatal error: He wrote to parents that 20 students had contracted the disease when actually 21 students had been tested for it. The actual number of students affected, three, hardly qualifies as an outbreak.
While it’s upsetting that the small town has been showered with negative attention—Rumage says that teens started acting particularly mean to each other, accusing one another of starting the outbreak even though they didn’t know who was infected—the false outbreak is also bringing the topic of Texas’ sex education requirements to the national spotlight. Now, more attention is being paid to whether the classes (which are not required by law) should be integrated and whether abstinence-only education—the type required if sex ed is taught in Texas schools—is good enough.
The Crane school board will vote next week on a proposal to incorporate a sex ed class into local schools, a measure that Crane Independent School District’s curriculum director hopes will pass.
“This did make us aware that we need some kind of abstinence or sex ed program,” the director Yolanda Carr told me. The board voted against adding any program in April 2012, Carr said, because “it’s small town USA and they thought they didn’t need it.”
Even if the school board does vote to opt in for sexual education classes, the fact that they may be abstinence-only could be harmful to the teenagers who’d be taking them. In fact, according to Vice, the Texas school districts that do teach sex ed may be giving teens incorrect information to scare them away from intercourse.
“From our research we found very few districts actually do teach sex ed and the ones that teach abstinence-only give misleading information, like scare tactics about false failure rates of condoms,” Jose Medina, Texas Freedom Network’s communications director, told me. “Abstinence-only programs do not work and we’ve found that in our research.”
But the prevalence of abstinence-only education may be changing (if slowly). This month, a California judge ruled that teaching teens to wait for marriage does not count as fulfilling state sexual education requirements and does not provide students with “medically accurate” information about intercourse or its effects. While this ruling affects only about 40,000 students in the Clovis Unified School District, Think Progress makes the argument that it’s setting an important precedent for California and, hopefully, the rest of the nation.
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