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New Colorado sex education law adds clarity

June 1, 2013 Updated: June 1, 2013 at 5:50 pm

When Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 officials in 2010 created a health and sex education curriculum for students under a new law and provisions of the state Board of Education, it took a year of difficult work.

"We had some sex education instruction going on, but hadn't looked at it in a long time. We felt it was important, so we started over from scratch," said D-12 Assistant Superintendent Bev Tarpley. The committee charged with the delicate task included administrators, teachers, counselors, a minister, nurse, doctor and parents.

"We walked a tightrope to give students information to keep them safe and at the same time be sensitive to families and what they thought was their job to do,"' Tarpley said.

As of this week, there is another new sex education law on the books. Gov. John Hickenlooper signed HB1081, which in part prods districts that previously lagged in updating their sex ed classes.

The law was created to strengthen existing guidelines and to help youths make informed decisions about their health and relationships. The legislation outlines age appropriate education, with K-3 grade levels learning about hygiene, and older grade levels studying sex education.

The old law was vague, particularly as to what was meant by comprehensive sex education. The new one is awash in definitions designed to address that vagueness, noting that a comprehensive human sexuality education program must be "evidence-based, culturally sensitive, medically accurate, age-appropriate, and reflective of positive youth development approaches." The culturally sensitive phrase refers to making the classroom discussions more sensitive to groups such as gays or transgender youth.

It also encourages family communication about sexuality and teaching students to avoid making unwanted verbal, physical and sexual advances.

While sex education is a sensitive subject, it is considered a vital one. Surveys show that 61 percent of Colorado youths are sexually active by the time they graduate from high school, and that 7 percent do not use birth control, said Monica McCafferty, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountain Region.

When compared to the national average, the state has a lower rate of teen births and certain sexually transmitted infections.

Some districts statewide did not do much about the health and sex education requirements the last time around.

A 2011 survey found that only 40 percent of state school administrators believed their schools met the requirements of the old law, according to Colorado Youth Matter.

Locally, however, districts such as Cheyenne Mountain 12, Academy School District 20, Colorado Springs School District 11, and Calhan School District RJ1, have done the hard work and are confident that their classes reflect the new standards.

"We are in great shape," Tarpley said, noting the district's abstinence-based program also hits all the important criteria of the new law - being comprehensive, medically accurate, age appropriate, and research- and evidence-based.

A committee in 2010 went through the requirements. "In our meetings, there were fears, especially among junior high parents, that we would be showing kids how to do things, using contraceptive aids, and they didn't want it." Teachers, too, felt uncomfortable with what they thought they might have to teach.

"It was hard for districts to fully implement the old law even though they had good intentions," McCafferty said.

Many seem nervous about the new law. Neither of the legislative sponsors of the bill, Sen. Nancy Todd and Rep. Crisanta Duran, returned phone calls, emails or requests for interviews. Colorado Department of Education officials would only say they are neutral on the subject.

The new law transfers the responsibility of sexual education from the Department of Education to the Department of Public Health and Environment to "enhance efficiency and effectiveness," according to the state Senate majority office website.

However, the state Board of Education voted 5-2 to oppose the bill because management was placed in the state Department of Health and Environment and not the education department.

"We felt it should be lodged with education not health. The law creates a four-member committee and only one would be from education," said Paul Lundeen, chairman of the state Board of Education.

The state is offering districts a carrot in the form of grants to update their programs, including purchasing materials and training teachers. To get the money, however, they must have a comprehensive sex-ed program.

One of the most controversial parts of the new law is the opt-out policy, which allows parents to sign a form saying they don't want their children to attend the classes.

"It is more difficult to opt out when you are moving information from students to parents. They would have to be aware and make the choice not to have their child participate," Lundeen said.

Lundeen, speaking personally and not as board chairman, said he has concerns about the law, fearing it might "bring the technical activity of sex education to students before a parent may think it is age appropriate."

Some school districts haven't paid attention to the bill or have questions yet to be answered.

"It's been a controversial bill because it is not well understood, and it has been a delicate topic over the years. There is concern by districts on how they should handle it," said Jane Urschel, executive deputy director of Colorado Association of School Boards. School districts make the decision on what type of sex ed curriculum to use.

Academy 20 requires parents of high school students to opt their children out, and requires parents of middle school students to sign "opt-in" permission slips, said spokeswoman Nanette Anderson.

There has been much debate over the years as to whether abstinence-only programs provide enough information.

"We try to emphasize health and not performance," said Bob Null, District 11 board member.

He said the board would look at the new law to ensure the district is complying.

The word "abstinence" can raise a red flag, because some see that as not including scientific information.

Diane Foley, a Colorado Springs pediatrician who helped D-12 develop its health program, said, "Abstinence, risk avoidance is a lifestyle choice and not a form of birth control. It is about setting boundaries, developing healthy relationships and refusal skills."

Foley, director of the nonprofit Education for a Lifetime, says abstinence as part of a comprehensive program is necessary. "It's not just a matter of saying here is contraception and you need to convince a partner to use it. While active teens might need that, most are not having sex."

The new law emphasizes that classes must be culturally sensitive to diverse groups, including those of color, gays and transgender students, the disabled and immigrants.

"I find that interesting because avoidance doesn't leave anyone out. It teaches that is the healthiest choice of whatever your orientation. Abstinence is setting boundaries and developing healthy relationships, refusal skills," Foley said.

She noted that some argue that teaching avoidance doesn't work. "Does comprehensive work? Studies show that it does not decrease the pregnancy rate. And it increases condom use for only three to six months."

More teens are choosing not to have sex, she said, noting findings of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, so teaching emotional health and looking to the future should be part of avoidance.

D-11 puts its abstinence information under discussions of positive youth development, said Linda Sanders, science and health facilitator. The goal is to educate students on high risk behaviors that may effect their health and welfare.

In Calhan School District RJ1, health class is required for all sophomores. And there is a program called "Wait" that weaves subjects such as good choices, character, relationship education, and positive youth development.

There is also a freshman seminar when kids transition from middle school to high school that focuses on good choices and character, not just sex ed.

The district asks for parental feedback about the classes.

"People might argue and say it should come from the parents, and we respect that. But it's absolutely important to have sex ed, with increased pressures that students have in society. We need to empower and arm them with as much education as possible," Superintendent Linda Miller said.

District 12's program is "abstinence based, but not abstinence only," Tarpley said.

"Abstinence is the true way to stay safe," Tarpley says.

But, she said, when they created their policy, they wanted students to know enough about their physical and emotional development and the dangers they can face. That's basically what the state law is getting at.

"But we also had to be sensitive to families and what they see is their job." Tarpley notes.


Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371 Twitter @mcgrawatgazette

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