With spike in STDs, should Michigan force all schools to teach sex ed?

Most Michigan school districts teach some form of sex education. But state law currently does not require students to learn about contraception and Michigan does not allow schools to make contraceptives available to students. (Bridge photo by Daytona Niles)

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A dramatic rise in sexually transmitted diseases among young people in Michigan has public health experts questioning whether the state needs to reconsider what schools are teaching — or not teaching — in sex education programs.

State law requires students to be taught about HIV — and about the benefits of abstinence until marriage, if they take sex ed. But Michigan does not require districts to teach sex education, or address contraception, despite studies showing such instruction reduces rates of STDs and unplanned pregnancies when compared to programs that focus solely on the benefits of abstinence until marriage.   

Related: HPV cancer rates are up. Yet many Michigan doctors won't talk about it.

Related: With spike in STDs, should Michigan force all schools to teach sex ed?

Laurie Bechhofer, an HIV/STD education consultant at the Michigan Department of Education, said Michigan’s laws give local districts “a lot of leeway to offer a very comprehensive curriculum.” 

But Michigan’s sex education laws also allow schools to avoid components of what public health officials say are comprehensive tools for sexual safety and decisionmaking. In addition to not requiring sex education, there is no requirement for school districts to discuss sexual orientation. Schools are not allowed to make condoms or other contraceptives available to students. And they can lose funding if they discuss abortion as an option for an unplanned pregnancy. 

The Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based research and policy organization that supports reproductive rights, periodically reviews and compares state sex education laws. It found that Michigan:

  • Is one of 10 states that require school districts to teach about HIV but does not require them to teach sex ed  

  • Is one of 29 states that requires educators to stress abstinence in sex education and one of 19 that stress the importance of sex only in marriage.

  • Is among 35 states that require parents to be notified if sex ed is taught and allow parents to “opt-out” children from instruction.

  • Is silent when it comes to sexual orientation

  • Prohibits information that is “medically inaccurate.” (Seventeen other states require program content to be medically accurate)

  • Requires information on sexual decision-making and self-discipline, personal boundaries, and dating and sexual violence prevention. 

Elizabeth Nash, Guttmacher’s senior state issues manager, said Michigan’s laws fall short by stressing abstinence without requiring comprehensive sex education.

“That’s not how humans work. People have sex,” she said. “Young people have sex. And instead of scaring them and talking about only abstinence, we need to help young people have healthy relationships they deserve and have all the information about contraception and protection they need. That includes absentences and whether you want sex. You have to have all those tools.” 

But an advocate for one popular program that stresses abstinence said its curriculum provides healthy choices to young people. Even if teens don’t wait until marriage to have sex, advocate Natasha Mueller said, abstinence programs may influence students to delay sexual activity until they are older and can make better decisions. 

The federal government continues to pour money into abstinence-only programs, even though studies suggest abstinence-only curricula do not stop teens from having sex. In a 2011 study, University of Georgia researchers reviewed state laws and compared pregnancy rates, concluding that abstinence-only programs fail to reduce pregnancy and in fact “may actually be contributing to the high teenage pregnancy rates in the U.S.”

In a separate review, the Indiana University School of Medicine and Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health reviewed reseach on sexual health education, public attitudes toward sex education and student perspectives on sex, and concluded that “abstinence-only policies violate the human rights of adolescents because they withhold potentially life-saving information on HIV and other (STDs).”

Earlier this year, a study in the American Journal of Public Health found that federal abstinence-only funding had no effect on adolescent birth rates overall but corresponded to an increase in adolescent birth rates in ideologically conservative states.

Nash said Michigan’s sex education laws may also have a chilling effect on educators as well because the state can penalize a district up to 1 percent of its funding if it fails to follow the law.

This year, East Lansing Public Schools’ board of education is challenging a part of the state law that requires districts to discipline educators who “refer a pupil for an abortion or assists a pupil in obtaining an abortion” when the educator is not the student’s guardian or parent.

The board voted 6-0 against adopting such an employee disciplinary policy in September, and went a step further: voting 6-0 on a resolution calling the requirement “vague, overbroad, and an overreach by the state” and asking the legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to repeal that part of the law.

“The community has overwhelmingly supported the Board's position on this issue,” board president Erin Graham, told Bridge Magazine in an email.

Meanwhile, a measure by Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, would eliminate the requirement of a credit hour of health education physical education to graduate high school. 

Less sex. Less protection, too.

Barb Flis, founder of Parent Action for Healthy Kids, which works with parents and educators to teach youth about sexuality, worries that a lack of time and funding, along with limitations in Michigan’s sex ed laws, can leave kids ill-equipped to make good sexual health decisions. (Courtesy photo)

Whatever the feelings on how sex ed should be taught, data show that teens are having sex less often these days.

In 2014, 34 percent of teens reported being sexually active compared to just under 29 percent in 2017, according to the federal Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, or YRBSS, a national school-based survey.

But when teens do have sex, they’re more often doing so without condoms, according to the same survey, which found that just under 42 percent of students used a condom during their last sexual encounter prior to the 2013 survey, compared to more than 46 percent in 2017.

Barb Flis, founder of the Parent Action Network, which works with schools, community organizations and parents to teach youth about sexuality, said Michigan’s laws work against equipping students with the information and confidence they need if they become sexually active, or decide to abstain. 

For the most part, she said, educators try to offer a comprehensive curriculum and most offer at least some sex education. But she and others say they worry that other school priorities, such as standardized testing, can squeeze out time that might be devoted to health and sex education.

“I’m not saying our teachers don’t care. They’re plugging away as much as they can, but they don’t have the time, and they don’t have the funding,” Flis said.

A nurse practitioner at Detroit’s Corktown Health Clinic, Tory Ervin said too many young people are sexually active and getting screened for STDs before they understand sexual physical health or the complexities of power dynamics and respect in relationships. (Bridge photo by Robin Erb)

Tory Ervin, a nurse practitioner at the Corktown Health Center in Detroit, said another important aspect of sex education involves teaching young people about choice, respect, and the skills of talking.

Too often, young people visiting her clinic are sexually active and being screened for sexually transmitted diseases when they hear for the first time about healthy relationships, their right to control their own bodies, and how to negotiate the conversation about protection, or even how to say “no.”

Being able to tell a new partner, “‘We’re going to enter a new relationship, so let’s get tested.’...(is) a difficult conversation, and it can be an empowering conversation,” Ervin said. “But you need to hear how to have that conversation from more than your medical provider,” she said.

But Natasha Mueller, education director for the Grand Rapids-based Pregnancy Resource Center, which has ties to the anti-abortion movement and provides a range of services for pregnant women, including counseling on whether to get an abortion, defended programs like Willing to Wait, noting that while it does stress abstinence, it also discusses STDs, pregnancy and options for contraception. 

The curriculum, taught in more than two dozen school districts in four western Michigan counties, encourages discussions on whether to engage in sex in the same one way an educator would discuss the risks of underage drinking, or the decision to forego exercise, Mueller said.

The “Willing To Wait” curriculum emphasizes abstinence, but one proponent said it also offers information on STDs and protection and teaches the soft skills of navigating awkward conversations. (Bridge photo by Robin Erb)

“We talk about it within the framework of avoiding risk, acknowledging there is risk with sex,” she said.

Even for students who don’t choose to wait until marriage, Willing to Wait may persuade them to delay sexual activity until they’re older; that, in turn, means they’re more developmentally ready to have thoughtful discussions with their partners and insist on infection protection and contraception, Mueller said.

She said students may feel that Google can give them the upper hand in understanding physical anatomy, but some things — negotiating skills and respect, among them — are better learned in person by trusted educators, parents and others.

“High schoolers are really interested in the relationship-building… and that  goes into that negotiation and being able to identify unhealthy relationships,” Mueller said. “If someone doesn't respect your boundaries (and) that conversation about contraception, then that's not a healthy relationship.”

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Thu, 01/02/2020 - 8:53am

It is ridiculous that we, as a state, require students to be taught about HIV, but don't require that students be taught how to take effective steps to protect themselves and their partners from contracting or transmitting the virus, let alone educate them about more prominent STD/Is. Medically accurate, science-based, LGBT-inclusive sex ed. should be a requirement for every MI student.

Thu, 01/02/2020 - 4:12pm

Agreed. This is what happens when you have an illegal legislature (gerrymandering), and the damage they have done over the past several years.

The reality of the teenage years is there is a great need to "fit in" and "be loved". Accurate and comprehensive sex education is needed. I don't disagree abstinence and communication could be a part of this, but it is not enough. As a nurse, parent and grandparent, I grew up in a very conservative religious environment and had such a distorted view of sexuality. It took me years to move beyond that. I grew up at a time when sex was not talked about, women were blamed and oppressed and had no choices and boys and men were let off the hook.

The last decade of has led MI down this very unhealthy road. Michigan needs to get back on track, taking into consideration both sides of all issues instead of again "propagating" merely conservative ideas.

Dr. Richard Zeile
Fri, 01/03/2020 - 1:31pm

Will teaching all children to handle firearms safely reduce the number of shootings, accidental or otherwise? Or will it encourage more young people to use firearms, and thus inadvertently lead to more accidents?

Fri, 01/03/2020 - 2:19pm

If you're the actual Richard Zeile, then I completely understand why education in Michigan is such a joke. What a ham fisted attempt at conflating two wildly different things in defense of not teaching sex education. A walking, talking indictment of the charter system scam

Mon, 01/06/2020 - 4:26pm

Is a "doctorate" degree in christian education from a seminary the same thing as a doctorate degree in public health?

Thu, 01/02/2020 - 1:17pm

I don't know about Willing to Wait specifically, but what I've seen from similar programs is problematic information that actually teaches kids to not bother with contraception. In their push to focus on abstinence and waiting until marriage, they tell kids about contraception. . . and how it fails. Kids get the impression that it's not worth the effort to use them at all, which is obviously not the case. These programs really need to be much more carefully monitored to make sure kids get the information they need to make good choices. I remember being really annoyed that the Sex Ed class I had as a kid resulted in the teacher answering about 3 of every 4 questions with something like, "I'm not allowed to talk to you about that. Please ask a parent or your doctor." It makes the information seem scandalous and some kids question whether they should even be talking about such things with anyone.

Thank goodness my teen has no filter and gets some perverse joy in trying to say things that will shock me. I've been able to correct her misinformation quite a few times as a result. I don't particularly enjoy the awkward conversations, but I would rather set aside my own discomfort and give her the information she needs to be safe than deal with avoidable health issues or unintended pregnancies later.

Janice Dillaha
Fri, 01/03/2020 - 9:52am

If our education system isn't adept at math and language, and testing says it isn't, is it fair to expect teachers to successfully teach the science of disease transmission and sex?

Sun, 01/05/2020 - 11:47am

Given the Michigan requirements for health education, including human sexuality and human reproduction, that currently exist in both middle school and high school curriculum standards, it is absurd to say that teachers "don't have the time or the funding" to teach students about sex.

What is almost certainly closer to the truth is that many teachers either don't have the knowledge or the comfort level needed to appropriately teach their students about negotiating relationship boundaries, consent, and contraception in addition to the bare facts of human reproduction. Worse, even when teachers have that knowledge, many families do not want their young people taught about these topics at all, and especially not by teachers who may or may not share the family's religious beliefs.

We already have a good model curriculum for this subject in Michigan. We should empower all publicly-funded schools to use it by making a complete human sexuality curriculum mandatory, with individual family opt-outs permitted only by specific topics, not from "sex ed" as an entire unit. And we should provide whatever professional development resources are needed to train or retrain as necessary, our middle and high school teachers to deliver this curriculum comfortably and with fluency.

Tue, 01/14/2020 - 11:53am

Yep. Offering sex education in schools is a cheap way to prevent millions of dollars of health care costs and human misery. I can't imagine that Jesus would disapprove of making the world a better place.

John Steele
Sat, 02/01/2020 - 10:42pm

The fact that we teach abstinence only results in higher teen pregnancies. This is what the data tells us. Why do we settle for third rate education for our children and our society?