WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. » In sex education classes, 94 percent of Texas school districts teach that abstaining from sex is the only healthy option for unmarried couples, and, in many cases, students are given misleading and inaccurate information about the risks associated with sex, according to a new 72-page report.
Two percent of districts -- in a state that has the third highest teen birth rate in the nation -- ignore the subject completely, according to the study.
The two-year study, "Just Say Don't Know: Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools," was conducted by two Texas State University researchers and funded by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, the research arm of the Texas Freedom Network, which describes itself as "a mainstream voice to counter the religious right."
Researchers David Wiley and Kelly Wilson, who both teach health education, examined tens of thousands of lesson plans, student handouts, speaker presentations and other related documents obtained from 990 school districts, 96 percent of Texas' districts, through the Texas Public Information Act.
"Most of the mistruths share a common purpose, and a likely effect, and that is discouraging young people who might already be sexually active from using condoms, a message I find shocking as a professional health educator," Wiley said.
The Texas education code does not require public schools to offer sex education. But if they do, it must be abstinence-focused, and instruction about contraceptives should be couched in terms of how often they fail, according to language added to the code in 1995. According to the study, 4 percent of districts offer an "abstinence-plus curriculum."
In the report, researchers documented at least one factual error in the materials received from 41 percent of the school districts. The study's authors found instances in which districts used what they called sexist, religious and shame- or fear-based techniques during instruction. The findings include:
On wearing condoms during sex, the Brady district has told teens, "Well if you insist on killing yourself by jumping off a bridge, at least wear these elbow pads."
The Edinburg school district policy states, "Students should be informed that homosexual acts are illegal in Texas and highly correlated with the transmission of AIDS."
The Eanes school district provided students with contradictory information from the Austin-based Medical Institute for Sexual Health about the effectiveness of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted diseases.
Dale Whitaker a spokesperson with the Eanes school district, said in an e-mailed statement that the materials cited were not part of the curriculum, but ancillary. The curriculum materials, she said, were last reviewed in 2005.
Arthur H. Coleman, president and CEO of the institute, said, "It is ... totally unjustified that the purported report from the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund inappropriately and incorrectly attacks the credentials and integrity of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health. ... It is, and always has been, the very watchword of our existence that what we produce will be entirely accurate, ideologically neutral and complete."
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, said, "We must make sure young people get the medically accurate information they need to make responsible life decisions."
State lawmakers have filed several bills this session that would require schools to provide scientifically accurate information in sex education. A bill filed Tuesday by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, would also require that parents be notified about the content of sex education classes.
Amanda Brown, program director for Austin Lifeguard, which provides curricula to districts, said that her program strives to use the latest information available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Brown said Miller didn't respond to an invitation to learn more about Lifeguard's programs.
"I wanted to show her firsthand what we really do, because you can't always rely on the information that the school districts provide to be up to date," she said.
Not all school districts were criticized by the report's authors.
The Hays school district was one of a few praised for its sex education content and the training it provides teachers.
Wiley, a former school board member in the district, is the chair of the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a group whose recommendations on sex education instruction are cited by the School Health Advisory Council.