Critics Say Knox County’s Abstinence-Based Sex-Ed Presentations Inspire Shame, Blame, and Fear

In Cover Stories, News by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

Let’s talk about sex.

But without, well, actually talking about it. To be more precise, let’s talk about not having sex. We’ll learn about how it can ruin your future—unless you are a happily married husband or wife. And you’ll learn a few methods of avoiding the pitfalls of pregnancy and disease, but with the understanding that the only reliable prevention is abstaining from sex altogether.

That is the general gist of the Knox County Schools’ sex-education curriculum, partly due to limitations placed by the state Legislature and partly due to local design. Sex education has been a contentious topic across the country as cultural norms shift, pitting parents, school administrators, legislators, and public-health officials against each other. Tennessee strictly limits what kind of sex education can be offered—even allowing teachers to be fined for any missteps—and dictates an abstinence-based curriculum that ultimately leaves teens without enough information to make informed decisions about sex. Although the most vocal parents in recent years have wanted less sex education rather than more, scientifically sampled focus groups in Knoxville show a widespread demand for more comprehensive sex education, which research has shown is the most effective at preventing teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and even early sexual activity.

Even within the limitations of state law, students, graduates, and some parents are taking issue with how sex education is taught in Knox County—by an educator hired away from a Christian-based abstinence organization after outside presenters were banned from teaching sex ed in Knox County schools. Critics, who have voiced objections and filed formal complaints, say they support sex education but find Knox County’s version factually misleading, sexist, and fear-based.

The issue has galvanized young people to action. Two recent Knox graduates have started a group called Just Educate to argue that the district’s approach is not only ineffective but, as presented, offensive and damaging to women and to anyone who is not heterosexual. College students Mikaela Faust and Caroline Rowcliffe got together in a classroom on their last day of high school at Hardin Valley Academy to brainstorm ways to protest the flaws they see in the district’s sex education presentation and to argue for comprehensive sex education in Tennessee.

As a senior, Faust saw younger friends react badly to the sex education presentation in her school.

“I think typically girls felt the most targeted because there would be jokes about wearing revealing clothing making you a ho that are just totally demeaning, especially if you are a 14- or 15-year-old girl already dealing with self-esteem problems,” she says.

Last summer, shortly after it was founded, Just Educate conducted an online student survey that generated more than 200 responses—most very critical of the curriculum and how it was taught—and began making a video based on interviews with local high-school students. An early version of the video, in which teens talk about what they’d like in a sex-education class, is already posted on YouTube and linked through the Just Educate Facebook page. In the long term, Faust and Rowcliffe want to create similar surveys and videos with teens in other East Tennessee counties, helping young people approach their own schools about improving sex education.

Rowcliffe brought her concerns about Knox County’s sex education presentation to the Knox County Board of Education in December. She says school district staff agreed to make some changes, and she is hopeful the lessons will improve this spring. But when others complained about the district’s approach to sex ed in the past few years, they say they too received assurances of changes that haven’t come.

“I’m open, but it’s too early to start celebrating,” says Faust, a freshman at Middle Tennessee State University. “We haven’t seen proof that this is going to change, and until we do, I’m not going to give up the fight.”


Survey Results:

The non-scientific Just Educate survey, publicized through social media and by word of mouth at schools and churches, prompted responses from students across Knox County, Rowcliffe and Faust say. “I think a lot of people got excited about it because it gave them a chance to speak up about something that had been bothering them for a long time,” Faust says. “You read those responses and it’s just heartbreaking. … That was like the last straw for me. I realized the severity of the issue.”

Almost half of those surveyed said they were offended by something the teacher said in the sex-education presentation, 36 percent said they felt targeted or blamed at some point by the teacher, and 64 percent described the experience as completely negative. Many of the commenters on the survey expressed opinions that the sex-education presentation was “fear-based,” sexist, reliant on “slut-shaming,” and peppered with homophobic jokes.

“Literally all I learned in my lifetime wellness class was that a penis goes into the vagina,” one student commented on the survey. “Oh, and that if you have sex you are worthless and will die of HIV/AIDS 90% of the time. If you don’t, you’ll be part of the 10% who get pregnant. And then die.”

The survey was conducted through online platform SurveyMonkey, and it’s unclear whether there was any mechanism to prevent someone voting twice. There is also no way to be sure every respondent was an actual Knox County high school student.

“We can’t give a lot of credibility to this survey, but it raises a lot of questions,” says Dr. Kathleen Brown, director of the Master’s of Public Health program at the University of Tennessee. “If that’s how [sex education] is being received and perceived, then that’s a problem,” says Brown, who is also the former director of community assessment and health promotion at the Knox County Health Department.

Knox County Schools officials say they have investigated such complaints before.

“Whenever we have concerns brought to our attention—whether related to this aspect of the curriculum or others—we take those seriously and we want to address them,” says assistant superintendent Elizabeth Alves. She says the district has seen the survey but can’t investigate individual comments in it without knowing the students’ names and interviewing them.

She says she has observed the presenter give his lesson three times, unannounced, and never heard anything derogatory. (Rowcliffe questions whether supervisor observations are a reliable gauge of what usually happens in the lessons. “When your boss is there, you’re going to be on your best behavior,” she says.) Alves says regular teachers remain in the classroom during the presentation and have never complained about it. The district reviews and updates the presentation on a regular basis.

But the presentation is more than the words on a PowerPoint. Especially when you’re talking about something as sensitive as sex, a lot of the impact comes from the delivery. Parental concerns about Planned Parenthood’s delivery led Superintendent Jim McIntyre five years ago to ban outside presenters—then immediately hire one of them to become the district employee who now teaches sex education. The man chosen was Lucas Hurd, who was a youth minister and had presented sex education for Christian-based Justwait (an organization whose name is still on his PowerPoint).

Rowcliffe says that’s how Just Educate got its name: It provides a deliberate alternative to Justwait.


At the Head of the Class:

Sex education in Knoxville is taught as brief lessons in the sixth and eighth grades, and again in ninth or (more often) 10th grade as a one- to two-day lesson in the Family Life/Wellness curriculum. Parents are given notice beforehand so their children can opt out.

Knox County Schools had a long-standing practice of bringing in guests to teach the lesson until the high-profile controversy when a Hardin Valley Academy parent protested Planned Parenthood’s presence in classrooms. In response, a panel of health department, school system, and Carson-Newman University experts found Planned Parenthood’s presentation was “generally very appropriate and aligned with specific academic standards required within the Tennessee curriculum.” However, one of its slides showed the Planned Parenthood website address, and the website contained information that was not approved. McIntyre announced all sex education in the future would be taught by school or health department staff.

Interestingly, just a month or so later, a parent objected in writing to the Justwait presentation offered at West High School. Unlike the protest against Planned Parenthood, his objections didn’t make the news.

Ralph Hutchison provided a copy of the letter he wrote to McIntyre asking the school district to disavow the Justwait presentation verbally to students and in writing to parents. He called the presenter’s jokes and language “bluntly offensive.” McIntyre had already decided not to use outside presenters, so it appears no review of the Justwait presentation occurred at that time.

But although Hutchison says he was verbally assured Hurd wouldn’t be back, Hurd was subsequently hired to do the job at every school.

“We developed a job description and advertised it as we would any other position and interviewed candidates, and Lucas came out on top and we hired him,” explains Alves. Hurd has a bachelor of arts in religion from Carson-Newman College (now University) and has been a youth minister or abstinence teacher for almost 20 years, with certifications from the National Abstinence Association and Why kNOw Abstinence Advanced Training, his resume shows.

Melissa Tindell, public affairs director for Knox County Schools, says teachers may choose to handle the sex-education lesson themselves, but almost none do.

“Many of our teachers know the students in other capacities as their coach,” Alves says. “The practice of engaging others for this aspect of the curriculum came out of that awkwardness, and that’s why we thought it was important for somebody who was trained to have a consistent message.”

“I think the goal was: ‘We’ll bring in a person less controversial than Planned Parenthood and we’ll tightly control what they teach,’” says Tori Mills, external affairs manager for Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee. “Of course there’s not sexism and homophobia written into the curriculum, but what you say off-hand that is not written on the PowerPoint slide isn’t regulated.”

Mills took her job after the school district stopped allowing outside presentations; she says she doesn’t care who provides the lessons as long as they are nonjudgmental and accurate.

“By hiring an educator who teaches toward his values—who [they] think is okay to have sex with, when it’s okay to have sex—Knox County is not controlling the message in the way that they think they are,” Mills says. “I think even within the current constraints of the state law, that we can do better.”

* * * * *

Defending the Gateway:

COVER_v2i11_StudentsStatistics1Local public school districts in Tennessee are limited by state law to an “abstinence-based” curriculum. This approach emphasizes that the best choice is to refrain from sex before marriage, but it also covers the basics of the reproductive system and birth control. It heavily emphasizes the risks of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection.

Tennessee law says Family Life instruction should “promote sexual risk avoidance through abstinence and encourage sexual health by teaching students the consequences of non-marital sexual activity.”

The state also supplies another reason regular teachers might want to avoid handling sex education. In 2012, the Tennessee Legislature approved a bill forbidding teachers from discussing “gateway sexual activity,” even allowing fines up to $500 for doing so. Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill drafted by the Family Action Council of Tennessee. The Nashville-based group had claimed some teachers might be promoting oral sex as an alternative to intercourse.

Critics say the definition of “gateway sexual activity” is so vague that it might cover any kind of touching at all, including kissing or hand-holding. A parent who believes “gateway sexual activity” has been promoted can file a complaint with the superintendent; it must be investigated and reported to the state education commissioner. To pursue legal fines, the parent would have to file a lawsuit.

“We’re not sure where all the boundaries are,” Mills says. “What can we still do that’s inside of this law? I’m not sure, and that’s scary. That’s what you get when you [pass] legislation that’s not based on factual information.”

Although the general perception seems to be that local parents want a narrow, abstinence-focused curriculum, that may not be true, Brown says.

A 2012 study prepared for the Knox County Health Department by the University of Tennessee College of Social Work found the overwhelming majority of participating parents and all the teenage girls favored a curriculum that covered more topics than just abstinence and the biology of sex.

The study used roundtable discussions with parents from Knox, Cocke, and Hamblen counties, recruited using a randomized telephone sample, as well as roundtables with girls ages 16 to 18.

Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, cautioned that it’s difficult to generalize from focus groups because of their small sample size. But they are useful for gathering information about attitudes in a setting that helps people feel more comfortable and open.

UT’s report indicated that many teens and parents were frustrated with sex education being taught through a brief drop-in from a stranger. Instead, they wanted a full curriculum related to decision-making skills that would start in third grade and add different elements related to healthy relationships, puberty, and sex as the children mature.

In the focus groups, parents who didn’t want sex education in school were a minority. Those who did object were concerned that the approach wouldn’t fit their value system, particularly as it relates to homosexuality. Still, just three of 79 parents said they would not allow their child to participate in a sex-education class that included information beyond abstinence.

Although the resulting health department report was shared with the school district, Buchanan says she doesn’t know if Knox County Schools used the information to shape its sex education unit.

Tennessee’s “gateway sexual activity” law and other aspects of its approach to sex education have made unflattering national headlines. For example, last year The Nation published an article on the disconnect between Tennessee’s “abstinence-based” curriculum and the fact that Memphis was leading the nation in sexually transmitted infections.

But efforts to change the state’s approach rarely gain traction in conservative stomping grounds. Another grassroots push for comprehensive sex education in East Tennessee emerged last summer when Stephanie Bertels, with Women Matter of Northeast Tennessee, posted petitions to expand sex education. Between two online platforms, the petitions garnered less than 200 signatures.

In spite of their brief exposure to abstinence-based sex education, many local teens are sexually active. A 2013 Knox County Health Department risk behavior survey conducted at 14 high schools across the district found 38 percent of high school students reported having sex at least once. Among seniors, the likelihood was 55 percent.

In contrast to the abstinence-only and abstinence-based approaches, comprehensive sex education provides a broad overview of contraception and sometimes detailed information about consent and healthy relationships. Research has shown that comprehensive sex education is more effective at reducing pregnancies, infection rates, and even sexual activity.

“If you look across developed countries, we [the U.S.] have the highest rate of teen pregnancy. Comprehensive education is more likely to be associated with countries which have lower rates of teen pregnancy and STD’s,” Brown notes. “We want to be culturally appropriate and sensitive to the community, but telling students ‘Just don’t do it’ has never been found to be effective.”

The American Psychological Association in 2005 examined 15 years of research to conclude that comprehensive sex education is more effective at stopping the spread of HIV. The group passed a resolution in favor of “empirically supported sex education.”

“Only comprehensive sex education is effective in protecting adolescents from pregnancy and sexually transmitted illnesses at first intercourse and during later sexual activity,” wrote psychologist Maureen Lyon, chair of the committee that produced the report.

* * * * *

Appeals for Change:

COVER_v2i11_StudentsStatistics2Alves says three complaints about the sex-education presentation have been made with the school district during the past four years, none substantiated.

Some critics say they have approached the abstinence educator, Lucas Hurd, directly with objections and suggestions about his presentation, or asked school district leaders to change aspects of it. They say they were initially hopeful but felt duped when nothing changed.

Ralph Hutchison wrote a three-page complaint in 2011 after his elder daughter heard Hurd’s Justwait presentation, and again in 2014 after his younger daughter attended it (with Hurd then a school district employee).

The first time, Hutchison says, an assistant principal assured him that Hurd would not teach the class again.

“Three years later, my second daughter entered 10th grade at West and, to my amazement, came home to report a similar experience,” Hutchison wrote. “This time my letters brought a response from a woman in the administration who apologized and said the young man had been made aware of the inappropriateness of his lecture. She would not assure me it would not happen again.”

Madeline Lonas, now a senior at the L&N Stem Academy, says she approached Hurd with suggestions after seeing his presentation as a sophomore. At that time she was a peer educator trained to answer questions related to sex and protection by Planned Parenthood’s FYI program. Among other things, Lonas says she asked Hurd not to make jokes about girls.

“He said he’d take into account my suggestions,” she says. “Then he went to the next class and did the exact same thing.”

Rowcliffe expressed satisfaction with her meeting with Hurd and district administrators, who explained that students were misunderstanding remarks Hurd had made. She says she feels confident the meeting can lead to positive changes. She asked that Hurd provide students more information about the variety of birth control options available and tell students directly that the state limits the content of the lesson.

Jean Heise, humanities supervisor for Knox County Schools, says Hurd is now going to make a statement that his presentation follows state law and state health objectives. But she couldn’t name any other of Rowcliffe’s “really good suggestions” that would be used. Heise says lengthening the list of birth control options to include more that can be controlled by the female partner “isn’t feasible” because there’s not enough time in the presentation.

There apparently is time, however, for slides featuring questionable adoption statistics (“1 in 6 U.S. families includes an adopted child,” which appears incorrect given that according to the U.S. Census, 2.3 percent of American children are adopted) and anti-abortion information (a fetus picture similar to those often used in pro-life ads).

* * * * *

Just the Facts, Ma’am:

The Knoxville Mercury asked UT’s Brown, director of its Masters of Public Health program, to review a version of the Knox County sex education PowerPoint presentation for accuracy and tone.

“There is a degree of accuracy to a lot of it,” she says. “But it seems to me we’re not presenting the pros and cons, just the negative aspects.”

For example, the slide covering condoms emphasizes only their failure rate based on “typical use:” using a condom only in some (but not all) sexual encounters, and using it incorrectly.

“You’ve got to explain, which is part of informed decision-making, that if it’s used properly every single time, it can be more effective than that,” Brown says. This is an example of a problem with the overall tone of the presentation, she says: “You don’t want girls leaving thinking women are doomed, or young people thinking, ‘Why bother using birth control?’”

Two slides about hormonal birth control (the pill, patch, etc.) give no information about their effectiveness at preventing pregnancy—but they accurately point out that they offer no protection from sexually-transmitted diseases. This is followed by a slide about their possible side effects, many of which are uncommon, Brown points out.

One slide says a quarter of all new HIV cases are among people younger than 22. Brown says it’s really among people under age 24, and most are close to the older end of the spectrum. She also questioned the statistic that claims one in four teens graduate from high school with a sexually transmitted disease.

She noted that at least one statistic cited was 20 years old and needs to be verified for accuracy in 2016.

The claim Brown found most troubling is that “over 70 percent of teens who become pregnant are abandoned by their male partners.”

“Abandoned is a really powerful word. It suggests they leave and you never see them again,” Brown says. “That’s not what the research and various surveys would suggest. There is a higher level of father involvement.”

Brown says she thinks the district needs to conduct an outcome-based evaluation to see what students know before and after they hear the sex education lesson and what they still remember a year later.

“If we feel really good and comfortable with what we’re doing, we shouldn’t have a problem with doing an objective evaluation,” she says.

* * * * *

Beyond the Facts:

Many students interviewed by the Mercury, or surveyed by Just Educate, say Hurd tries to make his presentation funny as a way to help the students feel more comfortable with an uncomfortable subject. But some found his approach inappropriate, citing jokes that mock women and gays as well as tactics that inspire fear and shame in girls.

Erin O’Brien, a senior at Hardin Valley High School who first attended Hurd’s presentation as a sophomore, says, “I remember feeling really scared and like I had all this pressure on myself. He really emphasizes that guys only want one thing: ‘Why buy the cow if I can get the milk for free?’”

The emphasis on women is obvious in the PowerPoint presentation. A slide shows the female reproductive system but not the male’s. The slides related to teen pregnancy emphasize women making the choices and bearing all the financial and emotional burdens. There is not a single slide about how pregnancy can affect a teen father’s finances, emotions, or future; fathers are only mentioned in the context of abandonment (and of older guys taking advantage of younger girls for sex).

O’Brien says the message was, “The guy is going to leave, and you’re going to be stuck with being undesirable.” It also reinforces to guys that abandonment is what’s expected of them, she says.

O’Brien and some friends in the Progressive Hawks club decided to attend the sex-education presentation again last fall. O’Brien says Hurd told the girls that even McDonald’s wouldn’t hire them if they were pregnant—although it’s actually illegal to refuse to hire someone for that reason.

Women who do get pregnant have three options, “but there’s really only one”—keeping the baby—”because the other two are not something you can live with, knowing that if you have an abortion you are killing a living child,” O’Brien recalls hearing from Hurd.

Lonas says she, too, thought the presentation put all the blame and responsibility for sex on girls.

Multiple women who responded to the Just Educate survey reported being told they need to avoid tempting or provoking men.

“Several times I felt threatened by the way that what we were taught reinforced rape culture by shifting responsibility for respecting women away from the boys and placing it entirely upon the girls (‘girls must cover up so boys don’t get the wrong idea,’ ‘boys just have sex drives that they can’t control so girls must not lead them on’),” wrote another survey respondent. “This is endangering me and my fellow female classmates who face the threat of sexual assault every single day.”

Although the Mercury was not granted an in-person interview with Hurd, Knox County Schools’ Tindell did convey our questions to him and returned three answers via email. We asked whether he intended to put the onus on just women to say “no” to sex, or to imply that otherwise they will no longer have worth to men, who will abandon them—or, if he did not teach this, why have so many students reported that impression?

“The Knox County Schools teaches a sex education curriculum that meets the standards set by the state of Tennessee,” he wrote in response. “I cannot make assumptions as to what impression students take away from the presentation and why.”

So why are there are no slides in the PowerPoint dealing specifically with the responsibilities or ramifications for boys, whether that has to do with pregnancy, disease, or emotions?

“The Knox County Schools seeks to provide sex education for all students regarding the decisions, emotions, responsibilities and consequences that come with sexual activity, not just females,” Hurd writes. “Our program aims to teach life skills that help students identify healthy and unhealthy relationships, understand sexually transmitted diseases and contraception, and make healthy life decisions.”

One version of the PowerPoint includes three slides showing a woman’s cervix distorted by cancer, infection, or scarring disease treatment. There are no pictures of penises infected with sexually transmitted diseases.

“It just comes down to the graphics we can show,” Heise says. “It’s just not appropriate to show a penis. On a girl—it’s more inside.”

Brown says fear-mongering with gory pictures used to be a more prevalent approach decades ago, before the public health community came to understand that scare tactics don’t work.

The fear factor is offset with jokes, but many said the laughs came at the expense of others.

Lonas recalled jokes about fat pregnant girls and homosexuals: “Knox County is putting this man in front of our students and saying ‘Yes, it’s okay, you can say these things.’”

Hutchison, an ordained minister and coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, says he was outraged at the jokes his daughters heard during the sex-education lesson at West High School.

Hutchison’s elder daughter told her dad that Hurd “loosened up” the class with dumb-blonde jokes, called sexually active women “ho’s,” slurred gays, and insulted women. (A joke Hutchison’s daughter repeated to him: “What do you call a woman who can’t cook? Single.”) When his younger daughter took the class, she said Hurd laughed or coughed every time he said the word “penis.”

“Clearly the young man is immature, unfit to teach, and more interested in being perceived as ‘cool’ or ‘with it’ by the young people than in delivering a serious, straightforward lesson on STDs, informed consent, etc.,” Hutchison wrote in an email.

Lonas and Hutchison both independently describe a slide in the presentation that uses a branching chart to show how infection exposure magnifies with multiple partners. They say Hurd identified one young woman who appears multiple times in the chart as having “ho-itis” or “ho-ish tendencies.”

Faust says she heard a joke about how men in jail can’t be virgins. (“That’s a straight-up rape joke, and that just kind of makes me sick to my stomach,” she says.)

Again, Heise and Alves say they have never heard Hurd make an inappropriate joke during his presentation. (Alves acknowledged she would find the use of the words “slut” or “ho” inappropriate, but says she has no evidence they have been used.)

In our emailed questions to Hurd, the Mercury listed these alleged jokes and asked him whether he had made those statements; and if so, what their purpose was in his presentations.

“A significant amount of time has been taken to meet with both former and current students to review their survey responses, and better understand and address their concerns with the programming,” Hurd wrote in reply. “Additionally, as concerns with the material and how it is covered arise, they are addressed with me.”

* * * * *

Relationships and Sexuality:

Teens interviewed by the Mercury, and those who responded to the Just Educate survey, indicated that sex education in Knox County is so focused on marriage that it offers no information for anyone who is not on that path.

The final slides of Hurd’s middle and high school presentations say that “sex inside marriage brings pleasure, bonding and babies.” The next slide shows a timeline of life for a man that runs “Boy… Man… Husband… Father,” and the female equivalent.

Many teens commented that refusing to acknowledge any choices outside that framework is unrealistic and potentially hurtful. For example, there is no information about what to do if you think you might have a sexually transmitted infection, or how to treat one, several teens pointed out in the survey.

Failing to discuss the process of deciding whether to have sex (remember, the only right answer is to wait until marriage) also means that teens don’t learn how to give or recognize consent, a skill that could reduce cases of sexual assault and rape. Nor does the presentation explain what rape or sexual assault are, and what to do if you are a victim.

“As a woman, I felt constantly under attack,” one survey respondent wrote of the sex-education presentation. “As a rape victim, I felt targeted, alone, and that the entire ordeal was my fault. I was embarrassed.”

Faust with Just Educate also wants to see more focus on consent “and who you can reach out to if you’re in a situation of sexual violence or rape, because I’ve seen a lot of my friends go through that and just feel so alone.”

Heise says rape is not part of the presentation because “it’s not explicit in the state standards.”

“Sexual-violence prevention should be part of this curriculum,” Brown states unequivocally. “The clarity someone has over what rape is and what is not—you know we’re dealing with that on college campuses,” including the University of Tennessee. (UT is currently being sued by a group of female students who say the university creates a “hostile sexual environment.”)

Brown notes that Knoxville teens regularly report being sexually assaulted. Almost 12 percent of girls surveyed at school by the health department in 2013 (and almost 6 percent of boys) indicated they had been physically forced to do unwanted sexual things, ranging from touching to sexual intercourse, at least once during the previous year.

“And how are we addressing that?” Brown asked. “Are we addressing the violence associated with sex in our discussions of healthy relationships and sexual health? Are we creating an environment that allows a comfort level for someone to seek help?”

The sex education unit also completely ignores a portion of all students: those who aren’t heterosexual. There is no discussion of risks, sexual protection, or long-term relationships among homosexual or transgender people. If homosexuality is brought up verbally, students say, it is mocked.

“Jokes about transgender people and queer people made me uncomfortable, because I am both,” one person wrote on the Just Educate survey.

Another wrote, “I’m a sexual minority and I was actually told by my teacher in front of the entire class that my orientation was wrong.”

A few students who took the Just Educate survey commented that they thought Hurd did a good job. One person interviewed by the Mercury said she didn’t learn anything but found nothing offensive. Even those seniors and graduates who disapprove of it often recall finding it mostly silly at the time.

A few of the teens surveyed by Just Educate indicated that they didn’t want sex education taught at all.

But a larger proportion of surveyed students, as well as the teens in focus groups conducted by UT, said they wanted more information on how to have safe sex, and less emphasis on abstinence. And that’s an issue of state law.

The absence of comprehensive sex education at school doesn’t keep kids from learning about it—but it probably reduces the accuracy of what they learn.

“The only things I’ve ever learned about sex has come from my peers or from Google,” wrote one of the surveyed students.

That’s rather scary, since a 2011 Journal of Adolescent Health study concluded that websites where teens get their information about sex are frequently inaccurate. Of 177 sexual health websites examined, 46 percent addressing contraception provided incorrect information.

“Teenagers can learn more about sex better from each other than from a teacher. And because we do that, we are putting ourselves at risk because of unanswered questions that these teachers have permission not to discuss,” a student wrote on the Just Educate survey. “That’s not right. The government is practically pushing us to harm ourselves for the sake of saving their own faces.”

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at

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