Texas youth to school districts: Let's talk about sex

AUSTIN, Texas Tue Mar 8, 2011 6:30pm EST

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AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Texas teens and young adults descended on the Texas Capitol on Tuesday with an unusual message for public schools: Let's talk about sex.

The group of about 75 high school and college students was pushing a bill that would require school districts that teach sex education to include instruction on contraception along with abstinence.

Texas -- where the law now says that if districts teach sex education, they must emphasize abstinence -- has the nation's third-highest teen birth rate behind Mississippi and New Mexico.

"Clearly, we've got a problem, and clearly, ignorance isn't helping to solve that problem," said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit group that organized the youth event and describes itself as a watchdog of the religious right.

The bill didn't make it out of a House committee last session and could face even more challenges this year because of a larger Republican majority in the House.

Bill opponent Jonathan Saenz said the legislation is an "attack on abstinence" that amounts to "giving students a lighter and a cigarette at the front door of the school and telling them not to smoke."

Saenz is legislative director at Liberty Institute, which advocates for "First Amendment freedoms, less government and solid family values," according to its website.

Nicole Vargas, 18, a high school senior from San Antonio, was one of the students who came to the Capitol on Tuesday wearing bright yellow T-shirts that said "Education works!"

She said the sex education portion of her health class, which she took in 10th grade, focused only on abstinence, which she thought was an odd message given that many of her classmates had already had sex.

"At my high school, when a teenager gets pregnant, it's not that big of a deal, because it's such a common thing," she said. As for sexually transmitted infections, she said, "most people just think, 'It won't happen to me.'"

Ninety-four percent of Texas school districts rely on abstinence-only education, according to a 2009 Texas Freedom Network study.

The bill's author, Representative Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, said his proposal would have the sex education curriculum include various safe methods for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections but would continue to highlight abstinence.

"We're still making sure that that's the emphasis, but our legislation also has a dose of reality in it," said Castro, a Democrat.

State Representative Rob Eissler, the head of the House Public Education Committee, said that given the tight state budget, it's time to think about whether it's the mission of parents, rather than schools, to provide students with such information.

Eissler said the high teen birth rates in Texas are a problem, but not necessarily a sign the law on sex education should change.

"It shows these kids are getting an 'F' in abstinence," said Eissler, a Republican from The Woodlands.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia require that when sex education is taught, information on contraception be provided, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Twenty-seven states require that when sex education is taught, abstinence be stressed.

Republican Governor Rick Perry supports Texas' focus on abstinence education. During the gubernatorial campaign, Perry said in a televised interview with the Texas Tribune's Evan Smith: "I'm just going to tell you from my own personal life, abstinence works."

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

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