A west Texas school district has confirmed an outbreak of chlamydia among students at a small-town high school that — surprise! — endorses an abstinence-only sex education program, but does not even officially offer sex ed.
District officials said last Friday that the Crane Independent School District has seen 20 cases of the sexually transmitted disease in its high school. With only about 300 students attending the school, that means about one in 15 kids there has been infected. School district officials sent out letters to the parents of high schoolers and middle schoolers to inform them of the “growing problem.”
The outbreak has drawn attention to the district’s problematic approach — or lack thereof — to educating students about safe sexual behavior.
Per the school’s 2014-2015 handbook, Crane ISD “does not offer a curriculum in human sexuality.” High schoolers receive just three days of optional sexual health education during the fall semester, and those materials are centered on abstinence. The handbook also lays out state-mandated stipulations should the district ever decide to add sex-ed to the curriculum, noting that it must emphasize abstinence as “the preferred choice of behavior in relationship to all sexual activity for unmarried persons of school age”:
The same advisory committee that recommended the optional abstinence-plus curriculum reportedly plans to meet on Monday to discuss how best to address the chlamydia outbreak.
Left untreated, chlamydia can pose serious threats to a patient’s fertility and make it impossible for a woman to become pregnant. In 2012, Texas ranked 13th in infection rates for the STI nationally, according to CDC estimates. The state also ranked 13th and 6th in infection rates for gonorrhea and syphilis, respectively, and it has the third-highest number of HIV diagnoses.
In a conversation with the San Antonio Express-News on Monday, school superintendent Jim Rumage defended the abstinence-heavy approach, claiming that it was still the best course of action even in the face of a major STI outbreak. “If kids are not having any sexual activity, they can’t get this disease,” said Rumage. “That’s not a program.”
Yet an expansive body of scientific evidence confirms that abstinence-based curricula are, in fact, bad programs. First and foremost, they simply don’t work; by any metric, abstinence-only programs are a failure. They’ve also drawn criticism for perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes, downplaying the effectiveness of birth control and condoms, spreading medical inaccuracies, and ignoring the separation of church and state. On the other hand, more comprehensive sex ed programs that don’t rely so much on scare tactics have been proven to help teenagers delay sexual activity, as well as practice safe sex when they do choose to engage in that behavior.
Health experts agree that funding abstinence programs is a waste of money — as well as potentially dangerous. States like Texas, where schools are not currently required to offer comprehensive sexual health instruction, have significantly higher rates of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancies. According to the authors of a 2006 Journal of Adolescent Health review article on abstinence policies and programs in the U.S., insisting that schools provide an abstinence-only curriculum is not only ill-informed; it is also categorically unfair to young people:
“We believe that abstinence-only education programs, as defined by federal funding requirements, are morally problematic, by withholding information and promoting questionable and inaccurate opinions. Abstinence-only programs threaten fundamental rights to health, information, and life.”