Judging from a public forum on sex education and sexual attitudes in Flagler County Thursday evening, there is no consensus on the matter, particularly regarding what role the school district should play. Out of 40 people who addressed the school board and a school advisory panel on sex education, 19 were opposed to moving away from a strict, abstinence-only message in school, 17 favored adopting a more realistic curriculum in schools that gives students better information about sexually transmitted diseases, responsibility and contraception. And seven people offered nuances of one version or another, proposing a mixture of school involvement contingent on parental opt-ins, for example, or speaking more generally about common goal-seeking.
The forum was a fascinating window into one of the most intimate and consequential issues facing parents, children and policy makers, with comments in turn riveting for their candor and urgency—especially from students—and striking for their insularity.
Several mothers and students spoke of being the result of teen pregnancies, though their views differed on how that might have been prevented—or whether it should even have been prevented. Grandparents spoke about raising grandchildren immersed in sexually permissive surroundings. Middle and high schoolers described Flagler schools where children as young as 10 are having sex, where teen-agers think nothing of serial sexual coupling, where sex is all boys want. A doctor railed against government-run sex education. School employees described the enormous gulf between some parents’ assumptions and the realities they see and experience every day with students in sexual dire straits—pregnant students, students abandoned by their parents, students unaware of the diseases their behavior is tempting, students desperate for knowledge school employees are forbidden from giving them, because the district has an abstinence-only policy in place, so talk of contraception is banned.
A man described condoms in schools as an endorsement of sex. A woman brandished a bible and claimed it was the answer even as she also claimed she wasn’t imposing it on anyone. A couple, both teachers in the schools, decried the district’s presumption to interfere in moral matters or, questioning the morality of Flagler’s own faculty, referred to numerous fellow-teachers they would never trust to teach their children about sex. A 7th grader implored her elders to stop holding knowledge hostage to moral presumptions. A 17-year-old student, describing herself as a sexually active teen, spurned previous suggestions that teens like her have a self-esteem problem, or that their activities have anything to do with morals, or that making a condom available condones sex.
Many, of all ages and backgrounds, condemned the lack of parental involvement in children’s lives in general, and pointed to the very room they were in as an example: just 100 people had turned up Thursday evening for a public forum on sex education in Flagler County schools, after the forum had been advertised, talked about, written about, and previewed through numerous other smaller focus group meetings and a broad-based survey on sex education and attitudes had circulated among thousands of students and been made available to every parent and resident in the county, after being publicized in every local media of note.
“I don’t think, and I don’t agree, that supplying them with an out is the way,” a father of nine said of making condoms available in schools, though Georgia Carnicella, program director of Central Florida Mental Health Services, corrected many assumptions when she said: “Nobody in here said we were going to hand out condoms.” At most, condoms would be made available in some clinics, if requested, though when the school board discussed the matter last month, even its most liberal member—Colleen Conklin—was opposed to condoms in school (Sue Dickinson, the board chairperson, and a former school nurse, was more favorable to the idea, suggesting at least a pilot program).
“Just because they hear the other option doesn’t mean that they’re going to go out and do something,” a 7th grader countered, Thursday evening, speaking with the kind of passion, and occasional emotions—including tears—that informed many of the comments. It’s heartbreaking to see parents, she said, saying that they’d rather have their child be taught by them alone when many other children don’t have the chance to interact with their parents, because parents don’t want to interact with them. “How do you think they’re getting their knowledge? They’re not.”
“I really don’t feel that there is one way to resolve this issue. This is a community problem,” one adult said, saying various approaches, including schools, churches and home involvement, would have to be considered.
For almost a year, the school board has been reevaluating its abstinence-only curriculum in light of increasing proportions of teens with sexually transmitted diseases and a persistently high rate of teen pregnancies (Flagler’s rate is lower than Florida’s, but still triple that of most western nations). The board is considering going to an abstinence-plus curriculum. Abstinence would still be emphasized primarily. But students would also be taught healthy approaches to sex and contraception. Abstinence-plus recognizes that some students are having sex and aren’t being dissuaded from having sex by abstinence messages. But most students have no ready access to information about sex, safe sex or contraception. The school curriculum would be adjusted to provide for that.
The school board hasn’t changed its policy. Nor is it interested in changing the policy without involving as broad a swath of the community as possible. Katrina Townsend, the school district’s director of students services, has spent the last several months conducting seminars and smaller-scale forums, then the survey, to give the board as much information as possible about local public attitudes and expectations. The forum on Thursday was the largest public meeting yet on the matter. But as in previous initiatives, the response was far less numerous than Townsend expected, or that the board would have liked. And the 1900 or so people in the audience were, as one person who spoke put it, already converted to one point of view or another: they represented involved parents, students and community members, rather than those parents whose lack of involvement in their children’s lives is making a reevaluation of the sex-ed policy so necessary.
The meeting was chaired by School Board member Andy Dance, who was flanked by board members John Fischer and Colleen Conklin, and Superintendent Janet Valentine. They spoke only briefly, at the end of two and a half hours of comments from almost half the audience. The 40 people who spoke represented all ages, persuasions, and likely sexual orientations and proclivities, from the sexually active to proud virgins—including an adult who teaches Project SOS, an abstinence program, and who declared herself happily abstinent for four years, the way ex-alcoholics declare themselves sober for so many years.
Fischer at the end sternly reprimanded the absent parents who hadn’t showed up, and who reflected an attitude of indifference toward children that made the school board’s rethinking of policies on sex-ed necessary. “This place should have been packed,” Fischer said as he derided parents who did not live up to their responsibility—either to be there for their children, or to speak about such matters as sex education and morals. And if it’s difficult or uncomfortable for those parents to speak about such matters, Fischer said, “get over it.”
The district’s advisory board will be preparing a set of recommendations before the school board takes up the issue later this year.