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Senate debates sex education

March 04, 1997
By: Joel Kirkland
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Curious school children filled the Senate galleries Tuesday just in time to hear a heated debate about the state's role in shaping sex education in Missouri schools.

Among a litany of funding proposals for education, Senate Bill 168 would require sex education courses to emphasize abstinence as the "preferred choice of behavior." Teachers would be required to present abstinence as the only full-proof method to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, according to the bill.

Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, sparked debate when he moved to eliminate the entire sex education section of the bill. For more than an hour, Jacob pulled his side's weight in debate until his effort was rejected by a 11-21 vote.

"You can talk about human sexuality in terms of the reproductive system and in terms of transmitting diseases without telling people what's right and wrong," Jacob told the full Senate.

Jacob also voiced concerns that the proposal leaves local school boards with too little discretion to maintain their own curriculum.

"If this becomes law then we mandate that (a legislator's) notions about human sexuality should be imposed upon every student in Missouri," Jacob said.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Ted House, D-St. Charles, responded that the legislation builds a framework for local school districts to create their own sex education programs.

"For 25 years we have had the safe sex message in our schools and its been a dismal failure," House said. "Our children are dying from sexually transmitted diseases. They ought to know the physical consequences of sexual promiscuity."

Among 10 specific items detailed as requirements for sex education instruction, teachers must not only teach abstinence, but also discuss STD's, the consequences of adolescent sexual activity, and emotional development.

"Do we want our teachers educating our kids about values and our own sexuality? Or is that something that is better left to our parents?" Jacob asked.

"The reproductive system needs to be discussed," Jacob said. "But how you engage in that on a day-to-day basis and in your life is not something I want to entrust to a teacher."

Throughout the debate he emphasized that educators should teach students how to make decisions as they become more sexually active. "It is a basic fact of life that people are going to engage in sexual activity," Jacob said.

Both Jacob and House agree that efforts need to be made to combat mixed messages coming from popular culture, including media, church, school and peers. Calling it a question of physical and emotional health, House said the purpose of the legislation is "to send a clear message of the standard of behavior that we expect for our children."

"This sexual health provision will do more to address the social and economic problems that plague our public schools everyday than any other bureaucratic fix we could possibly try to devise," House said.

In a short discussion about whether children understand the word "abstinence" and the age people are able to make decisions about sex, House replied, "If teenagers were making rational decisions, then why would we have the problem of teenage pregnancy."

Jacob warned that parents eventually would become angry at the requirements to teach abstinence. "I don't want to see conflict between parents and teachers," he said.

However, the proposal allows parents to review the curriculum and remove their child from a sex education class if so desired.

The proposal also would prohibit school districts from distributing condoms or other contraceptives. If passed without any changes, the bill would prevent schools from referring a student to another organization or health clinic for help. Amendments to that section are being considered.