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The birds, the bees, oh my! (Health & Fitness).

Abstinence-only programs have restricted sex education talk in many districts, but educators can still play a role in helping kids make healthy choices.

As health educators go, many people might say Julie Colwell has it made. A veteran teacher at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois, Colwell plies her trade in a district that embraces a comprehensive approach to sex education. So every day, in a classroom environment where respect and discretion rule, she gets to field all sorts of sex-related questions from her students. And they are plentiful: Colwell says she could write a book about all the curious queries she's gotten in the 20 years she's been doing her work.

This is no puzzle, Colwell notes. Students want--and need--to know accurate answers to the plethora of questions that swirl around topics like sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, and AIDS. Some 60 percent of American 12th graders now report they've had sex, and Colwell, like educators nationwide, say classes like hers help students sort through the maze of misinformation about these subjects.

But if Colwell is feeling upbeat about giving students the tools they need to make medically safe and healthy choices, her colleagues in other parts of the country are feeling hamstrung. That's because some 23 percent of U.S. school districts have adopted policies that require a focused message about sexual activity: Forget about it until marriage.

Lured by more than $100 million in federal funds to schools and community groups, states adopting these programs are bound by strict rules prohibiting any discussion of contraception or AIDS prevention. The central message, according to the statute, must be that sexual activity outside marriage is not proper and is "likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."

NEA, along with scores of medical experts and public health organizations, has long promoted an approach that embraces the teaching of both abstinence and potentially life-saving information about contraception. Educators on the frontlines say every day they go to school they witness why.

Janet Lomonico, a health teacher at J.P. Stevens High School in Edison, New Jersey, says even students who firmly declare they want to remain virgins until marriage are "hungry for knowledge to make healthy, self-protective decisions." She notes that teaching abstinence until marriage ignores the circumstances of gays and lesbians, who cannot legally marry in this country.

Lomonico adds that it's just not the students, but parents, who are grateful for the information she serves up. "At parent conferences, they always want to stay and talk more about this," she says. And national polls bear it out. According to recent surveys, 8 in 10 parents want schools to teach their children how to use contraception and how to negotiate contraceptive use with future partners.

What's troubling, says Jerald Newberry, executive director of the NEA Health Information Network, is that many parents in districts where abstinence-only policies have been adopted aren't even aware of the change. "They don't realize that schools are not giving their children information on how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies," he says.

Despite that, students should not have to go hungry for guidance, he says. Educators can play a role in helping students make wise choices. Newberry offers these tips for navigating the sensitive topic:

* Be aware of the sex education curriculum taught in your school, as well as the regulations in your district around what can and can't be discussed, by whom, at each grade level.

* Encourage students to become involved in community events related to AIDS awareness or STD or teen pregnancy prevention. (NEA is partnering with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy on their May 7th National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Visit www.teenpregnancy.org for ideas on how to promote the day in your community.)

* Connect young people with positive, caring adult role models who can be sounding boards and offer wise supports.

* If you're in an abstinence-only district, consider lobbying for use of abstinence-only funds for after-school community programs, so that schools can be free to teach a more comprehensive program.

* Learn about appropriate, accurate resources that could help your students. Start by visiting www.cdc.gov and click on "Health Topics A-Z" for reliable information on a variety of sex education topics.

FOR MORE: Visit HIN's website at www.neahin.org and the website of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States at www.siecus.org.
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Title Annotation:educators can still play a role in abstinence-only programs on sex education
Author:Strauss, Kandra
Publication:NEA Today
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Words:737
Previous Article:Cuddle up. (people).
Next Article:What's up at HIN? NEA Health Information Network. (Health & Fitness).
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