Faced With Rising Teen STD Rates, County Health Officials Lobbying DISD to Jettison Abstinence-Based Sex Ed

Teenagers, volatile bundles of hormones that they are, are going to have sex. That's an iron law of nature, as unchangeable as the fact that lions like to eat zebras. It's also a fair bet that, unless they are taught otherwise, these teenagers are going to have sex in an completely unsafe and irresponsible manner.

Texas lawmakers haven't yet come to grips with this, pushing for ever-greater restrictions on sex education in schools. School districts, whose sex ed curricula are set, per state law, by parent-dominated school health advisory committees, have largely followed that lead. Fully half of the state's 1,028 districts have no sex ed program, according to the Morning News. Many of the rest, DISD included, take an abstinence-only approach. (Update on March 19: DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander wrote this morning to say the district takes an "abstinence-based," not abstinence-only approach, as was reported by the Morning News. The district defines it as "emphasizing the benefits of abstinence; includes information about non­coital sexual behavior, contraception, and disease prevention methods; also referred to as abstinence-plus or abstinence-centered.")

It's not surprising that Texas has among the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation. It also probably shouldn't come as a surprise that, in Dallas County at least, teen STD rates are on the rise.

There are an untold number of other factors driving this, of course, but Dallas County Health Director Zachary Thompson, whose crusade against HIV/AIDS was chronicled in Saturday's Morning News, would really, really like local school districts to take a more reality-based approach.

"We're OK with abstinence programs but there needs to be a comprehensive sex education discussion around HIV/AIDS prevention with the alarming rates we're seeing in the 13-18 age group," he said.

Those numbers were compiled by Dallas County Health and Human Services for a 2012 report. In 2010, 35 from that age group contracted HIV, which accounted for 3.9-percent of total cases. The numbers for other STDs were far worse. A quarter of the roughly 5,000 gonorrhea cases and 16,000 chlamydia cases in Dallas County in 2010 were diagnosed in teens.

Clearly, the abstinence-only message is not cutting through the evolutionary forces that make kids want to have sex and the cultural ones that help convince them it's OK.

"One of the things we know is that they're getting bombarded with sexual messages. ... They're getting a message, but it's probably the wrong message," Thompson says. He's careful to emphasize that pushing back against that message will take the entire community and is not the responsibility of any single organization.

But it's clear that he thinks the type of abstinence-only education taught at DISD is a major hurdle. "We need to have a way to provide a curriculum that's going to be constructive and preventative in nature." That includes frank discussions of STDs and how to prevent them. And condoms.

What's standing in the way at DISD is the school health advisory committee, whose resistance to such measures I'd presume stems from the aversion of parents to having a third party talk to their children about sex. The committee's co-chair, Julie Grim, referred all questions to DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander.

Thompson says county health officials has approached the committee in hopes of implementing a more comprehensive sex education curriculum. Its members have been "receptive," he said, and recognize the severity of the rising rate of infections.

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