Brevard County school officials are entangled in a debate about what information regarding human sexuality should be provided to students and who should teach it in the county’s public schools. Some officials are seeking a more comprehensive approach including information on abstinence, contraception, and condoms. Others are arguing to maintain the current policy of abstinence-only-until-marriage instruction.1
In Florida, state law mandates that students be taught the benefits of abstinence and the consequences of teen pregnancy. All instructional materials must teach, among other things, that abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the expected standard for all school-age students, the benefits of a monogamous heterosexual marriage, and that abstinence is the only certain way to avoid “out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs),” including HIV/AIDS. This definition closely mirrors portions of the federal definition of “abstinence education” and demonstrates the migration of language from the federal statute to state laws and policies—a growing trend in states where a strict definition of “abstinence education” is provided. Florida state law also allows school boards to decide what curriculum to use and whether to include information on condoms, contraception, and abortion.2
In June, the curriculum used in sexuality education programs in the Brevard County Public Schools came up for review before a school board-appointed committee of teachers, administrators, and medical professionals.3 At that time, three outside organizations presented their supplement to the curriculum before the committee. Among them was Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando (PPGO), which favors an abstinence-based approach to sexuality education that stresses the importance of abstinence and provides information on contraceptives and condoms.4 Two additional groups presented their supplemental material; First Defense is a local crisis pregnancy center (CPC) with a history of community controversy over its abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, and Apostolic Ministries of America, Inc. is a Titusville-based evangelical church. Both organizations receive federal funding to provide abstinence-only-until-marriage-programs and both groups only discuss the failure rates of contraceptives and condoms.5
The review committee voted separately on whether each group should be allowed to provide its supplemental information to students in the schools. The committee’s votes amount to a recommendation which will then be vetted by the Superintendent and eventually voted on by the School Board. The committee voted in favor of the abstinence-only-until-marriage organizations but against PPGO. On the Planned Parenthood vote, the committee was divided 7–6 with teachers and medical professionals voting in favor of allowing PPGO to provide abstinence-based materials to students and school administrators voting against PPGO.6
Superintendent Richard DiPatri, however, rejected the committee’s recommendations and instead announced that he would like to see sexuality education taught only by teachers employed by the school district and would offer teacher trainings on sexuality education in order to prepare them.7 DiPatri did not voice an opinion on curriculum content including the extent to which students should be taught about contraceptives.8
These unfolding events have stirred parents, teachers, and students to speak out about their views on sexuality education. Hundreds of FloridaToday.com (an on-line news outlet serving Brevard County) readers posted comments on the newspaper’s website. FloridaToday.com reported that most were in favor of a more comprehensive approach to sexuality education that includes complete information about contraceptives and condoms and also in favor of the schools, not outside organizations, teaching it.9 One school board member was quoted as saying, “Why, oh why, would we not want to give our students the information they need to protect them from sexually transmitted diseases?”10 A mental health counselor in the Brevard County School District commented that “it is unethical to provide misinformation or to withhold information that teens need to make good decision.”11
In August, the school board will vote on this issue. Sue Idtensohn, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando, who has been at the forefront of this community debate for the last two years says, “Denying students basic health information about reproduction and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, is patently absurd. It is our responsibility as residents of Brevard County to insist that religious-based organizations not teach shamed based abstinence messages to our youth. Teens have and will continue to have sex whether we like it or not. While adults are arguing about the ‘effectiveness of condoms’ our students are being marginalized, both intellectually and medically. Administrators in Brevard must approve an updated medically correct sex education curriculum for teachers; anything less is putting a whole generation at risk.”12
- Kate Brennan, “Sex ed debate divides board,” Florida Today, 18 July 2007, accessed 23 July 2007, <http://www.floridatoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070718/NEWS01/707180369 >.
- Florida Statute, Title XLVIII, Chapter 1003, Section 42, 43, and 46.
- Kate Brennan, “Committee divided on sex education policy,” Florida Today, 11 July 2007, accessed 23 July 2007, <http://www.floridatoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070711/BREAKINGNEWS/70711029/1006>.
- Kate Brennan, “DiPatri rejects sex ed choices,” Florida Today, 17 July 2007, accessed 23 July 2007, <http://www.floridatoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070717NEWS01/707170337/1006/news01>.
- “Your Views: Best of the Web,” Florida Today, 23 July 2007, accessed 23 July 2007, <http://www.floridatoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2007707230306>.
- Brennan, “Sex ed debate divides board.”
- SIECUS Staff e-mail exchange with Sue Idtensohn, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando, 25 July 2007.