When In Texas: Just Say I Don’t Know

Frederick Clarkson

A new report presents the cruel hard truth: Texas is the largest recipient of federal funds for abstinence only programs while turning out young people with one of the highest rates of sexual risk taking behaviors, teen birth and pregnancy rates.

The official seal of Texas features six flags to signify six national identities Texans have known. But a report just issued by the Austin-based Texas Freedom Network Education Fund suggests that a seventh flag may need to be added.  They call Texas the "flagship state for the abstinence movement."  But of course identity has consequences and the study Just Say Don’t Know: Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools reveals a flag of ignorance flapping smartly in the breeze over the state legislature that has made abstinence only the "preferred" method of teaching about human sexuality since 1995. 

Noting that Texas has among the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country, the study also reports that the state spends "approximately $1 billion annually for the costs of teen childbearing." What’s more, the report underscores authoritative data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found "young Texans to be "well above national averages on virtually every published statistic involving sexual risk-taking behaviors" and that this may be "one of the most pressing public health issues facing our state."

"Our classrooms are perpetuating a conspiracy of silence that robs young people of the reliable information they need to make responsible life decisions, " Dr. David Wiley, a health education professor at Texas State University-San Marcos and one of the co-authors of the report.

Just Say Don’t Know is based on two years of research by Wiley and fellow health education professor Dr. Kelly Wilson which they describe as "the first, specific, in-depth examination of what is happening in classrooms, beyond the boardrooms where policy is established and companies where textbooks are developed."  Their analysis is based on tens of thousands of pages of documents, curriculum materials, and district policies from nearly all of the state’s more than 1,000 public school districts.

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"We can now say with certainty the following about the state of sexuality education in this state," the authors declared.  "Abstinence-only programs have a stranglehold on sexuality education in Texas public schools.  An overwhelming majority of Texas school districts – more than 94 percent – do not give students any human sexuality instruction beyond abstinence.  Additionally, just over 2 percent simply ignore sexuality education completely.  What is left is a miniscule 4 percent of Texas school districts that teach any information about responsible pregnancy and STD prevention, including various contraceptive methods."

Wiley and Wilson stated that in their "professional opinion … our schools are failing Texas families by turning out generations of sexually illiterate young people at a time of high rates of teen pregnancy and STDs."

Texas is the single largest recipient of federal funds for "abstinence only" sexuality education programs to the tune of $18 million dollars last year.  Most states reject the funds because under federal rules, abstinence only means abstinence only.  That, plus abstinence only programs don’t work.  But Texas remains "stubbornly committed" to abstinence only approaches.

Some school districts don’t even bother with official abstinence programs and use religiously oriented programs produced by the religious right agency, Focus on the Family, or True Love Waits, produced by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Some Catholic and protestant fundamentalist dominated school districts skip the subject altogether because it would be "too controversial."

Turning a Blind Eye to Crackpot Claims

Unsurprisingly, the study found that "more than 3.7 million Texas students attend school in a district where they will not encounter even the most basic information about how to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)."  Just Say Don’t Know reveals that the way that Texas schools address sexuality ranges from incompetent to bizarre, but that there is little oversight from the state or from school districts.

For example, one school district utilizes a skit that compares using a condom to committing suicide.  The skit titled "Jumping Off the Bridge" concludes:  "Giving a condom to a teen is just like saying, "Well if you insist on killing yourself by jumping off the bridge, at least wear these elbow pads – they may protect you some?"  Knowing that STDs can kill and that there is at least a 30% failure rate is like helping the teen kill them self [sic]. It is a lie to call condoms "safe sex."  If there is a 30% failure rate of condoms against life threatening diseases, then calling them a way to have "safe sex" is like "helping" someone commit suicide by giving them elbow pads to "protect" them or finding them the safest spot from the bridge to jump.’"

Crackpot claims about condoms are perhaps the leading misinformation promoted in many school districts, including long discredited assertions that latex condoms have tiny holes large enough for sperm to travel through, even if the condom is otherwise properly used.

Here are some of what the report says about the state of the programs they evaluated:  alarming," "shockingly poor," "blatant errors of fact mixed with misleading Information," scare tactics and shaming," "outdated gender stereotypes" "unconstitutional religious content."  And they say that the "examples are numerous and widespread."

At the Austin press conference announcing the report, Wilson stated that abstinence-only programs, "often promote restrictive, even sexist gender roles and suggest that flirts are responsible for aggressive male sexual behavior."   In one passage from an abstinence only program, she observed, "women are compared to crock pots that take awhile to get warmed up, while men are like microwaves that are ready to cook at a moment’s notice."

"While this kind of stereotyping may seem mild," she averred, "it should be shocking to learn that abstinence-only programs often suggest – sometimes in not very subtle ways – that it’s the fault of young women if men become too sexually aggressive. One such program used in about a dozen school districts puts it this way:  ‘A girl who shows a lot of skin and dresses seductively fits into one of three categories: One, she’s pretty ignorant when it comes to guys, and she has no clue what she’s doing. Two, she’s teasing her boyfriend which is extremely cruel to the poor guy! And three, she’s giving her boyfriend an open invitation saying, ‘Here I am. Come take me.’"

Texas Sized Problems

When it comes to Texas, size always matters, and it is worth noting that national textbook publishers have resorted to self-censorship to accommodate the Texas market, making Texas everyone’s problem. Just Say Don’t Know reports:

"Seeking to avoid previous political battles over providing information on contraception and disease prevention in health textbooks, publishers simply self-censored the health education textbooks they submitted for the 2004 Texas adoption process.  Consequently, abstinence-only sexuality education is presented as the only option in all the books except one…  used by less than 1 percent of school districts in the state – mentions the word "condom" exactly one time.  Though a single mention of condoms as protection against unintended pregnancy and STDs is a far cry from a comprehensive approach, it does surpass the three other textbooks, which fail to mention the word "condom" or any other form of contraception or method of disease prevention except abstinence from intercourse or other sexual behaviors."

An additional section of the report, authored by Ryan Valentine, deputy director of TFN Foundation, looked at the religious-based curricula, materials and speakers used by many districts and found numerous examples of flagrant and unconstitutional proselytization and religious indoctrination in the public schools under the guise of sexuality education.  He flagged, for example, "an emerging trend" currently in of using materials or speakers from antiabortion "crisis pregnancy centers."  CPCs he explains are "nonprofit organizations that offer counseling to pregnant women intended to persuade them to give birth rather than have an abortion.  Nearly all of these organizations are established by or affiliated with Christian antiabortion groups.  (It should be noted that sound sexuality education neither promotes nor discourages abortion.)"  He reports that 64 school districts currently draw on CPCs for their sexuality education programs.

The report makes a number of recommendations including the rejection of federal abstinence only funds; increased oversight of sexuality education curricula, and insistence on using excellent materials from reputable sources.   But it also suggests that improvements will not be easy, noting that in addition to profound resistance from conservative religious sectors, that the state is home to several leading abstinence promoting agencies, such as the Medical Institute for Sexual health, which was identified as a major source of misinformation finding its way into public school curricula on sexuality education.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.