Kansas Sex Ed Abstinence Policy Draws 'Prairie Fire'

In what one advocate describes as a national "prairie fire," Kansas has become the latest state with a policy of stressing abstinence in public schools' sex education courses.

A policy adopted Wednesday by the State Board of Education says human sexuality classes should promote abstinence "until marriage," while still giving students complete and medically accurate information about birth control and preventing sexually transmitted diseases.

Approving a policy — instead of a mandate threatening schools' accreditation if they didn't comply — was a concession from the board's 6-4 conservative majority. But some advocates of comprehensive sex ed programs still worried the policy will encourage school districts to adopt programs designed to scare students out of having sex.

Twenty-six other states have policies of stressing abstinence and 20 require it, including Alabama, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

"Have you ever seen a prairie fire?" said Leslee Unruh, president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, based in Sioux Falls, S.D. "That's what's happening."

Rebecca Fox, the sexuality council's assistant director for public policy, said abstinence-only advocates have become more aggressive, spurred on by support and funding from the Bush administration. The federal government has put $1 billion into abstinence-only programs, most of it since 1996, she said.

"It's really created an abstinence-until-marriage industry," said Fox, whose group opposes abstinence-only programs.

Unruh said abstinence programs are thriving because of public interest.

"It's not just moms and dads and educators," Unruh said. "It's the kids themselves."

Kansas' conservative board members said a policy needed to specifically promote abstinence until marriage.

"It's just that, to me, marriage between a man a woman is the best way to raise families, to celebrate the great gift of sex that God has given us," said board member Kathy Martin, a Clay Center Republican. "That is what I would like to promote in our schools."

Last month, Kansas approved 15 as the minimum marriage.

The Kansas board upset some educators and public health officials in March by telling the state's 300 districts they must receive parents' written permission before teaching their children sex education. Most districts had assumed a child would participate unless a parent objected in writing.

According to the sexuality council, only Arizona, Nevada and Utah, have blanket "opt-in" requirements for sex education.

For nearly two decades, the Kansas board had a regulation requiring comprehensive sex education programs, but as it revised rules for accrediting schools, the regulation lapsed. Board members began considering sex education again last year, while revising health education guidelines.

The new sex education policy will be part of those guidelines, but they don't contain any penalties for school districts that don't follow them — a fact that gave critics some comfort.

Still, Debra Rukes, director of the Topeka YWCA's teenage pregnancy prevention program said the new policy could create "an open window" for districts to adopt abstinence-only programs.

She and other sex educators contend such programs often present misleading information — about birth control, for example. Also, they say studies have repeatedly suggested abstinence-only instruction doesn't keep students from having sex.

"We need to be concerned abstinence-only because it isn't accurate information," Rukes said. "That puts our kids at risk."

Fox said abstinence-only programs tell young people who've already had sex they're failures for not living up to societal standards.

"That can lead to risky behavior," she said. "That can lead to them to tuning your message out."

She added that the message also excludes gay and lesbian students, because, "If you're telling them to be abstinent until marriage, and they can't marry, then what options are you giving them?"

But Unruh said abstinence programs give people who have been sexually active a second chance at "sexual integrity," adding, "There's no judgment of people who are having sex."

The Kansas board's conservatives didn't want their policy to describe recommended programs as "comprehensive," saying the word has come to mean programs stressing contraception.

"'Comprehensive' sex education is dangerous for students," said board member John Bacon of Olathe.

Less conservative board members said existing sex ed programs are effective, creating no need for the new policy. Janet Waugh, a Kansas City Democrat, said she trusts local boards of education to adopt programs appropriate for their communities.

"What will work in Kansas City, Kansas, won't work in Baxter Springs," she said.

And board member Carol Rupe, a Wichita Republican, said: "I think this is a local control issue."

Board member Ken Willard, a Hutchinson Republican who is part of the conservative majority, offered compromise language saying students should be instructed in the health benefits of postponing sexual activity until after high school and "ideally until marriage." But fellow conservatives found it too weak.

"I'm not sure I want to say, 'OK, you're out of high school, you're 17 or 18, and we're not going to say you're not going to have to abstain,"' said board member Connie Morris, a St. Francis Republican. "I want to stick with abstinence until marriage."