By Vicki Cowart
Over the past decade as president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, I have heard countless stories from parents who struggle having “the talk” with their teens. Through the work of PPRM’s Responsible Sex Education Institute, I also hear stories from teachers and principals about wanting more support to equip students with appropriate information about sexual health. And from the many teens our educators speak to on a weekly and daily basis, we know that teens are curious — they want real answers and real information about sexual health and what’s going on with their bodies.
In 2007, Colorado passed a law stating that if sexual health education is offered as part of a school’s curriculum, then it must be comprehensive in nature. In other words, education provided to youth must include information about abstinence in addition to the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases through condom and contraceptive use. However many school districts have elected to either not teach sex education due, in part, to the lack of resources or because they find the current legal guideline too vague and confusing — making it extremely difficult to fully implement.
Sadly our state’s statistics on teen pregnancy and STDs reflect the inconsistency. On average every 111 minutes, a baby is born to a Colorado teen. Of all Colorado HIV cases reported between 2006-2010, 15 percent of new cases were diagnosed among youth 13-25 years of age.
Thankfully, members of the Colorado General Assembly, led by Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, are taking proactive steps to strengthen our existing state law through the introduction of House Bill 1081.
House Bill 1081 will specifically and unequivocally define core components that must be included in sexual health curriculum. For example, the term “comprehensive,” will be fully defined as will “age-appropriate” and “culturally-sensitive.” The latter will ensure that sexual health information that aims to demonize gay or transgender youth will not be permitted in our school system. The bill will also establish an innovative grant program, which will make it financially feasible for schools to adopt sex ed into their academic standards. Parents who choose to exclude their youth from such instruction, have the ability to do so.
Approximately 61 percent of Colorado high school students report being sexually active by the time they graduate; 7 percent admit to not using any form of birth control. We also know that parenting is the primary reason adolescent women drop out of school — there is a direct link between educational attainment and teen pregnancy. It is imperative that we pass HB-1081.
Comprehensive sex education that is evidence-based, medically accurate, age-appropriate and comprehensive has been proven to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancies, increase usage of contraception, delay the start of sexual interactions and help decrease the number of STDs. By not providing students with the proper, comprehensive sexuality education they need, we, as adults and educators are failing them. While it is expected of our students to succeed in reading, writing and math in order to graduate, medically accurate, potentially life-saving information about sexual health education remains optional for schools and is often removed from curricula.
HB-1081 still leaves the decision to offer sex ed in the classroom to each school district, but it clarifies what is required in the curriculum if the district elects offers it. HB-1081 will erase the sense of confusion found by many teenagers who aren’t given this information elsewhere and help them understand the short-term and long-term consequences of making healthy decisions.
But unfortunately this bill has been met with some resistance. As the bill moves onto its final hearing in the Senate before reaching the governors’ desk, I encourage everyone to put aside any political differences and look at this issue from a public health standpoint. I think we can all agree that reducing teen pregnancy and STD rates should and can be a common goal.
Please join me in going online to complete PPRM’s Real Sex Ed Saves lives petition by going clicking here, once signed your petitions will be shared with your lawmakers to ensure they know there is support for this bill in their communities.
Vicki Cowart is president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains.