Crane High School in West Texas has been in headlines this week after an outbreak of Chlamydia infected 20 students. Since Crane only has a total student population of about 300, the 1/15 infection rate was severe enough to prompt school administrators to send a letter home to parents, and spur a revisitation of their current sex education program.
Crane High’s current sex ed program is a three-day long course taught each fall. Like most schools in the state, it’s abstinence-based, which means students are taught that abstaining from sex is the only way to prevent unintended consequences, and they learn nothing about condoms or other forms of protection and birth control.
This kind of program is popular around Texas, especially since the mandatory health class was dropped from the high school graduation requirements back in 2009. Despite research that shows comprehensive, or abstinence-plus, curricula are much more effective at teaching teenagers how to engage in healthy, safe sex, about 75 percent of Texas school districts use abstinence-based programs. The thinking is that if kids aren’t presented with information on how to have safe sex, or are scared out of the act altogether with threats of possible disease and depression, they’ll put off losing their virginity until they’re older, or married.
Or as Crane ISD Superintendent Jim Rumage put it in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News, “If kids are not having any sexual activity, they can’t get this disease. That’s not a bad program.”
It’s hard to say whether or not it’s a direct result of an education that neglects to teach students what a condom is, or how to use one, but Texas ranks as the eighth-worst state in the country for STI transmission rates. Specifically, the Chlamydia rate in Texas in 2013 was 473.1 per 100,000 residents, compared to a nationwide rate of 456.7. Crane County, home to Crane High School, has a rate below the national and state averages, at 356.2 per 100,000 residents, but surrounding West Texas counties like Midland and Ector have Chlamydia rates high enough to rank them on a national scale.
Texas ranks even more poorly when it comes to teen pregnancy, with the third highest rate in the country behind New Mexico and Mississippi. Teen pregnancy has been on the decline nationwide since rates peaked in 1991, but Texas is lagging far behind.
In this state, when non-mandated sex education courses are taught, they aren’t required to be medically accurate, are allowed to promote religion, are allowed to promote negative ideas about sexual orientation, and must be age-appropriate, according to a state policy brief by Guttmacher. HIV prevention courses also aren’t mandated, but when they are taught, they stress abstinence but do cover condom use.
This is all fine, if you’re someone like Dr. Stuart Spitzer, the state representative who recently put legislative weight behind a House budget that would move $3 million from HIV prevention programs to abstinence education. “My goal is for everyone to be abstinent until they are married,” Spitzer said on the House floor. It’s the same kind of declaration as Crane ISD Superintendent Jim Rumage’s — if kids would just keep their body parts to themselves, we wouldn’t have a problem to educate against in the first place.
But at the local level, in towns where outbreaks like the one at Crane High School have hit, or towns with especially high teen pregnancy rates, things look a bit different. Slowly, due to concern and outrage from parents who say the education their kids receive isn’t working, more Texas schools are turning to comprehensive and abstinence-plus programs. The change isn’t coming in sweeping top-down legislation from lawmakers — it’s coming school by school, all over the state.
On May 19, school officials at Crane High will recommend a new sex ed curriculum to the school board. There’s no way of knowing what that recommended curriculum will look like, but there’s a pretty good chance abstinence-plus education might be on the horizon for Crane ISD.