Saturday, February 23, 2013

House gives final approval to Democrats' sex education bill

The state House of Representatives sent to the Senate Friday a bill that would commit school districts who teach about human sexuality to doing so in a way that takes account of the circumstances faced by students who are not heterosexual or who must cope with disability.

HB 13-1081 was approved on third reading by a 37-28 vote.

The debate before that final vote of the chamber was less time-consuming than was the one that occurred on Tuesday. Nevertheless, Republicans reiterated their view that the bill is objectionable because it forces parents to excuse their children from sex education classes, rather than being given the chance to sign them up for such instruction, and that there is no reliable mechanism to verify that its policy prescription will actually result in fewer teen pregnancies or sexually-transmitted disease cases.

"Folks, this message hasn't been proven to work," Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, said. "It has never gone through a federally-funded randomized control study. We are doing a grand experimentation on our children."

Stephens, who formerly worked for the evangelical advocacy organization Focus on the Family, argued that the comprehensive approach to be written into law by the bill rules out the sort of individual counseling that discourages risky sexual behaviors.

She told of her experience working in a California family-planning clinic, where some patients would repeatedly visit to determine whether a pregnancy had commenced.

"We need to connect," she said. "You cannot address this issue of comprehensive sexuality education unless you address behaviors."

Stephens, along with fellow Republican Lori Saine of Dacono, argued that parents would object to instruction about birth-control methods, while Colorado Springs Republican Lois Landgraf warned that school districts would be sued if teachers talk of birth control methods in the classroom.

"The real truth is that eight out of 10 Democratic parents, they want their kids taught abstinence," Stephens asserted. "They at least want their kids taught about restraint."

A 2004 survey conducted by National Public Radio, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government found that nearly three-quarters of respondents thought it "very important" that sex education be available to children.

Forty-eight percent of respondents agreed with an assertion that "[w]hen it comes to sex, teenagers need to have limits set, they must be told what is acceptable and what is not," and 48 percent agreed with an assertion that "[u]ltimately teenagers need to make their own decisions, so
their education needs to be more in the form of providing information and guidance."

Stephens, who has been her party's principal combatant on the issue as it has progressed through the House, also cited New York physician Michael Carrera's Children's Aid Society as a model for appropriate comprehensive sexuality instruction and slammed HB 13-1081 for not mimicking it.

"It's because this program deals one-on-one," she said. "They have a lot of mentoring, a lot of one-on-one mentoring, a lot of sheltering, a lot of community resources that come around to kids."

Democrats countered, as they did during the initial floor debate on the measure earlier in the week, with an emphasis on the imperative of overcoming ignorance and drawing kids away from a sense of isolation that can inhibit healthy questioning.

Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, made the point with a personal story that reflected his party's point. He told his colleagues that he attended a high school with an infant and toddler care facility on the campus and that his sister became pregnant as a teenager.

The Democratic sponsor, Rep. Crisanta Duran of Denver, argued during a committee hearing and on the floor during Tuesday's discussion in the chamber's Committee of the Whole that her bill would lower teen pregnancy rates.

At the county level, recent data indicates that teen pregnancy is a significantly bigger problem than it is in others. In 2009, the teen pregnancy rates in Adams, Denver, Mesa, Pueblo, and Weld counties were higher than both the Colorado and U.S. averages.

The statistical case for an inordinate teen pregnancy rate in the state as a whole is not altogether clear. In 2005, according to the Guttmacher Institute, Colorado had the 19th-highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation. Other data indicates that the state's teen pregnancy rate dropped by 32 percent between 1988 and 2005.

The state's Department of Public Health and Environment issued a report last year that indicated the teen pregnancy rate in Colorado fell at an even faster rate between 2001 and 2009.

That report also indicated that, in 2009, the teen pregnancy rate in Colorado was 4 births lower per 1,000 women than it was for the nation as a whole.

The problem is daunting on a national scale. The U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any developed nation, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 400,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 become pregnant every year in America.

Duran pointed out Friday, as she had during committee discussion of the bill and in floor debate earlier in the week, that her bill does not preclude educators from emphasizing the value of abstinence.

That position is consistent with the policy prescriptions of a number of medical organizations concerned with adolescent health, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, and Society for Adolescent Medicine.

No general fund dollars would be available to fund sex education in schools under the measure's terms. Instead, CDPHE would administer a program through which school districts and charter schools could seek federal funds to pay for the instruction.

No district or charter school would be obligated to apply for the federal money, but if they did and received the grant, then the bill's sex education content mandates would kick in.

No Republican member of the House voted for the bill, which now heads across the Capitol to the Senate. Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, will carry it there.