Commentary Sexual Health

Sex Education in Mississippi: Why It Is Time to Celebrate Progress

Jamie H. Bardwell

Under a new law requiring Mississippi schools to choose either an abstinence-plus or an abstinence-only policy, 71 schools chose the broader policy. This is progress, even for Mississippi.

Did you hear the good news about Mississippi and sex education?

I didn’t think so.

As a Mississippian working on social justice issues, I routinely advertise our state’s rankings: highest teen birth rate, highest child poverty rate, highest obesity rate, etc. It is easy to portray Mississippi in a negative light because it is the worst state for women, particularly women of color and women at or near poverty.

While recognizing the state’s dire statistics, it’s still important to realize that Mississippi is making enormous progress in sex education policy. Progress may not be obvious to the casual observer but it is happening.

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The Mississippi legislature passed a law in 2011 that requires every school district to adopt a sex education policy (“abstinence-only” or “abstinence-plus”) and a corresponding curriculum approved by the Mississippi Department of Education. Of the state’s 152 school districts, 81 adopted an abstinence-only policy and 71 adopted an abstinence-plus policy.

Mississippi’s sex education law is not perfect. The law requires gender-separate classrooms, bans condom demonstrations and instruction, requires parents to “opt-in” their teenager (vs. the more progressive “opt-out”), and defines abstinence-plus as almost identical to abstinence-only. And, the Mississippi Department of Education has approved Choosing the Best, a well-known, fear-based  abstinence-only curriculum, which can be used in schools who adopt either the abstinence-only or the  abstinence-plus policy because of the law’s weak definition of abstinence-plus. Unfortunately, many school districts, even those that adopted an abstinence-plus policy, will teach Choosing the Best. (It still makes me laugh that Choosing the Best includes a mock marriage ceremony that, under Mississippi law, must be performed in gender-separated classrooms.)

Still, before this year not a single school district had adopted any sex education policy, and the fact that 47 percent of the districts adopted abstinence-plus policies is groundbreaking. This is progress.

Of those 71 school districts with an abstinence-plus policy, 35 districts went one step further and adopted the Creating Healthy and Responsible Teens (CHART) policy promoted by the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) and Mississippi First, an education nonprofit. The CHART policy requires the school district to adopt an evidence-based curriculum. The evidence-based curriculum must be on the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ list of evidence-based programs and be approved by the Mississippi Department of Education. Two evidence-based, abstinence-plus curricula are being implemented by CHART districts: Draw the Line/Respect the Line and Reducing the Risk. These 35 school districts, most of which are considered high priority because they have significantly high teen birth and STI rates, will also have access to ongoing technical assistance, teacher training, and evaluation. This is progress.

Mississippi received federal Personal Responsibility and Education Program (PREP) dollars to support the CHART initiative. While many states awarded PREP dollars to nonprofits for community-based sex education, Mississippi took a different route and used these dollars to institutionalize evidence-based, abstinence-plus sex education. Now, Mississippi is benefiting from a perfect storm of factors: federal funding to support evidence-based sex education, a state department of health that understands teen pregnancy as a public health epidemic, and an unfunded mandate by the Mississippi legislature to teach sex education. This is progress.

One of the most encouraging characteristics about this progress is that it is led by young Mississippians. Mississippi First, the nonprofit that created the CHART policy with support from the Mississippi State Department of Health, has traveled to school districts across Mississippi to advocate for evidence-based, abstinence-plus sex education. Mississippi First is a four-year-old nonprofit founded by two Teach-for-America alums in their early 30s: Rachel Canter and Sanford Johnson. Johnson drove over 6,800 miles around Mississippi to persuade school districts to adopt the CHART policy.  Let me be clear about my bias: the foundation I work for, the Women’s Fund of Mississippi, has made two grants to support Mississippi First’s sex education advocacy. In spite of my bias, I am convinced that Johnson’s work is an example of grassroots advocacy at its finest. This is progress.

Despite all of this progress, newspapers routinely ran headlines like this: “Majority of school districts choose abstinence-only curriculum.” The Huffington Post article on Mississippi’s sex education decision only mentioned that 81 districts, a majority, adopted abstinence-only. There was never any mention of the 71 districts that adopted abstinence-plus and definitely no mention of the CHART districts. Casual observers had one thing to say after reading the headline and the story: Mississippi is still as backwards as ever. This Mississippi narrative is so ingrained that it has become impossible to celebrate progress.

But reproductive health advocates can’t forget to celebrate our wins. Including Mississippi voices in the narrative about our state is one of the most important ways we can break this cycle. Advocates within Mississippi (and outside) must be willing to describe the needs but also document the progress. Momentum builds when people believe progress is possible. It is difficult to persuade smart, pragmatic, progressive people to work on social justice issues if they think social change is impossible. This work is not impossible, it’s just not easy. And repeating the same old tired narrative about Mississippi isn’t helping anyone.

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