Condoms and AIDS and embryos — oh my!
The state Legislature once again is venturing into politically dangerous territory — namely, how to teach kids about sex in the classroom.
On Friday, the Colorado House passed HB 1081, which gives a more detailed definition of "comprehensive sex education" and creates a grant program for school districts that agree to teach to those strict standards. The bill proved a party-line issue; all 37 Democrats favored it, while all 28 Republicans opposed it. It has moved to the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Sex ed has been a controversial issue since the early 1990s. Conservatives like local Rep. Amy Stephens, who led the fight against HB1081 (and could not be reached for this story), often argue that it just isn't appropriate for schools to talk about something so personal in the classroom. Indeed, during debate, the Denver Post reported, conversations in the House floor digressed to whether teens would be using grape jelly or maple syrup to simulate lubricants in classroom instruction.
But despite the eyebrow-raising banter, local school districts don't seem particularly concerned with HB1081. Representatives from Colorado Springs School District 11 and Academy School District 20 said they would consider the legislation, if it passes.
"We just have to wait and see," says Linda Sanders, D-11's K-12 health and science facilitator.
Surprisingly, a local organization that provides free, abstinence-based curricula and speakers in many local schools, including D-11 high schools, also shrugs off the bill. Dr. Diane Foley, president of Life Network, told the Indy in 2010 that even using a banana in a condom demonstration could be construed as "sexually harassing." But even as today's bill moves along, she says she doesn't fear any earth-rattling changes to her organization, or its "Education for a Lifetime" curriculum.
"I don't think it affects us because we don't have any federal or state funding anymore," notes Foley.
Indeed, HB1081 isn't a mandate — nor is it really that groundbreaking. School districts have long been able to choose how to teach sex ed, and federal grants that date to the George W. Bush era will still give districts money to teach abstinence-only and abstinence-based education.
Rep. Crisanta Duran, who sponsored HB 1081, notes that the state also already has a 2007 law that defines "comprehensive sexual education." Her bill would simply add new language to make the standards more sensitive to at-risk groups, like LGBT kids and rape victims, and add a source of grant funding for school districts that want to teach to that standard.
"It really just gives them more options," she says.
There would be 75 grants per year, of about $30,000 each, for districts to implement the new health classes, whose curriculum would be written by the Colorado Department of Education. The $2.4 million needed annually for the program is expected to come through grants from the federal Affordable Care Act.
Duran says she hopes more scientific sex ed can help teens make better choices. Indeed, based on a 2011 survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 47.4 percent of high schoolers have had sex. More than half of the 19 million new STD infections each year are among young people aged 15 to 24, and more than 400,000 girls aged 15 to 19 gave birth in 2009.
"I wish all students were waiting for marriage to engage in sexual activity, but the reality is that is not happening," Duran says.
"So, instead of ignoring the problem, I think this is one way we can really start to address it."