Illustration by Brett Superstar
Illustration by Brett Superstar

THE OREGON STATE SENATE is scheduled to vote this week on a new bill governing statewide sex education that emphasizes common sense. But it's bad news for those pushing abstinence-only sex education.

House Bill 2509 requires all public schools to teach age-appropriate, medically accurate sex-education courses. Right now, the state's patchy funding leads to abstinence-only education in some schools. But abstinence only, the bill's authors say, is not "medically accurate."

Sydney York trains sex-education teachers for Portland Public Schools (PPS). Here in Portland, the teacher assigned to teach health is also assigned to instruct sex education—but there are only three certified health teachers for PPS' nine high schools. Two of those are primarily PE teachers not paid to teach health full time, so the people who usually wind up teaching sex education in the Rose City are guidance counselors or science teachers who squeeze health into their regular curriculum.

"They're not going out of their way to make sure there's a health-education specialist," says York, of local schools. "It's very inconsistent." There is also no set statewide sex-education curriculum, which means teachers can look up the state standards and receive basic training, but beyond that, teachers are responsible for coming up with the sex education materials themselves.

While current Oregon education law says that abstinence cannot be taught "to the exclusion" of information about contraception, people on the ground say that the low priority teachers give sex education makes it hit and miss.

"They could bring in one presentation by one speaker and check off the box," explains Planned Parenthood Advocates Executive Director Kellie DeVore. "If that speaker is an abstinence-only educator, well...."

"What's on the books and what's being taught in the classrooms can be much different," says York. "There still isn't money for enough teachers and sometimes it's just not on the school's radar."

An Oregon group that bills itself as "the only statewide, classroom-based program that is implemented consistently" is actually abstinence only. The Students Today Aren't Ready for Sex (STARS) program's website applauds its success in reaching 65 percent of Oregon's middle schoolers.

"The goal is to help them with refusal skills and to delay the onset of sexual activity," explains coordinator Belit Stockfleth. STARS' federal funding source bans them from discussing contraception and Stockfleth acknowledges that by itself STARS does not meet the legal requirements for sex education in public schools.

The state's Department of Human Services (DHS) also offers supplemental curriculum to schools that meet the law, including advice about contraception, but the DHS does not track how many schools actually accept or use that supplemental material. DeVore says that in her experience, many Oregon schools are just using the STARS program, and falling short of the law.

"STARS is not as comprehensive as we'd like, frankly," says York from PPS. York hopes that the new bill will make schools make sex education a higher priority, but she is skeptical positive change will come as schools slash budgets.

The need is obvious. While teen pregnancy rates have dropped 16 percent since 1990 in Multnomah County, the annual survey of Oregon teenagers in public schools still shows many are having unsafe sex. In the 2008 survey, 17 percent of eighth graders reported they have had intercourse and 30 percent of those students did not use condoms during their most recent experience.

"It's parents' responsibility to impart their values and schools are the place to get factual information," says DeVore, who reiterates that abstinence-only education is not medically accurate or comprehensive on its own.

In a public hearing about the bill on May 4, senators on the education committee noted the other major change of HB 2509: moving from judgmental language about sex education to more objective, statistical language. If the bill passes the Senate, no longer will Oregon state law read that "abstinence for school-age youth and mutually monogamous relationships... for adults" are the "safest and most responsible sexual behaviors." Instead, teachers will duly note that these choices are the "most effective way to prevent pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases."

The bill will also bring sex education into all Oregon schools, including elementary classrooms. "What is age-appropriate human sexuality material for grade one?" asked Senator Jeff Kruse during a hearing in Salem. The answer, from the Oregon Department of Education, is 'honest, useful, and accurate information' for all ages. In grade one, for example, that means a discussion about "good touch/bad touch."