The Oregonian, January 29, 2007

Sex education to push envelope

By Suzanne Pardington

Under new health education standards effective this month, Oregon school districts are considering sex education programs that raise sensitive moral issues.

The message Oregon educators want to send: Abstinence is best, but if you have sex, use protection. And they are choosing the most effective programs, they say, even if some strategies might make some parents or community members uncomfortable.

North Clackamas and Beaverton are among the districts that have already approved sex-education programs that teach students not just about sexual-health concepts but the skills they need to make good decisions under pressure. Portland Public Schools also uses a variety of skills-based programs and plans to adopt new health materials in 2007-08.

The state Department of Education has been encouraging districts to take this approach to sex education for the past several years. But over the next two years, more Oregon school districts are expected to consider them as they adopt new textbooks, materials and programs.

Last school year, Nancy Ward told her health students at Sunrise Middle School in Clackamas that many people use condoms incorrectly. Her students were dubious, but she wasn't allowed to explain the common mistakes.

"All we could do was say, 'Read the directions,'" she said.

This year, she can put a picture on an overhead to show them the correct way.

The eighth-grade lesson in how to put on a condom, approved by the North Clackamas School Board this month, is the sort of topic likely to stir debate.

"It's exactly the conversation we believe that states and communities should be having," said Bill Albert, deputy director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a nonpartisan organization that aims to reduce teen pregnancy rates by one-third by 2015.

"It's a very reasonable thing to ask are we doing the best we can," he said.

Teen pregnancy rates have declined nationally, including in Oregon and Washington, because teens are having less sex and using more contraception, Albert said. They are concerned about sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS, more cautious about sex and have access to long-lasting hormonal contraception, he said.

But the numbers are still too high in North Clackamas, where about 200 students have enrolled in the district's program for pregnant and parenting teens in the past five years, said Matt Utterback, director of secondary programs.

"One pregnancy is too many pregnancies for teenagers, and the number of sexually active teens that we have in our school district is frightening," he said. "A responsible school district is going to implement a program that has a positive impact on that."

The eighth-grade curriculum in North Clackamas promotes abstinence and teaches students how to resist peer pressure. In high school, students do role plays in class to practice refusing or delaying sexual advances and talking with sexual partners about using birth control, including condoms.

North Clackamas teachers also can now answer students' questions about homosexuality, abortion, pornography and some sexual acts. Parents can excuse their children from the lessons, and teachers can skip or adapt lessons at their discretion.

But Lee Merrick, a school board member who opposed the new curriculum, said the district should have gone further and required permission from all parents for students to participate. Parents have a responsibility to educate their children about sexuality at home, he said.

"The curriculum normalized behavior that I believe is inappropriate, immoral and abnormal, particularly for students in middle school," Merrick said. He declined to specify which behaviors he finds objectionable.

The Beaverton School District stopped short of teaching middle-schoolers how to put on a condom, said Trisha Shoemaker, a health teacher at Cedar Park Middle School.

"Even a role play about condom use would not be right for our community," she said. "I think you have to look at your community and the needs of your community."

However, eighth-graders in Beaverton learn about contraception, and teachers can talk about oral sex as a high-risk behavior, she said. Middle school students also role play situations such as how to get a friend to stop pressuring them to have sex.

Kathy Buhler, mother of a junior at Clackamas High School and a member of the committee that reviewed the North Clackamas curriculum, said she was initially opposed to it, but she changed her mind.

"In an ideal world, we would love not to have to do that, but when it comes down to it, they need to have those skills," she said. "It seems so sad to me that we have to be teaching something that should really be more of a mature issue. At the same time, there are some real diseases and threats to their lives."

In Ward's health classes at Sunrise Middle School this school year, students watched a video about abstinence. Afterward, they came up with reasons to abstain from sex.

One class came up with 33 reasons, and only two of them were the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, Ward said. Students also listed respecting themselves, their family's rules and their religion.

"Before you would just tell the kids, 'Abstinence is what you should do,'" she said. "But you didn't tell them why, and they never thought about what they would do."

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