A piece of clear adhesive tape is stuck onto a boy’s arm, illustrating the danger and shame he and a young woman would endure if they were to have sex. It’s one way abstinence-only sex education is being taught in some Colorado schools, including one in western Colorado’s Delta County, according to a reproductive rights advocate.
Lizzy Hinkley, reproductive rights policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said the group takes a road trip each year to hear from parents and students about concerns they have with the quality of their sexual education in public schools.
The entire issue has erupted recently in controversy as state lawmakers ponder changes to state law regulating public schools sex education.
In Delta, Hinkley said she’s heard of a teaching method that goes like this: An instructor sticks a piece of tape onto a boy’s arm, then removes it and sticks it to another boy’s arm – then another, and another. Eventually, the clear tape looks dirty and won’t stick to a boy’s arm.
Hinkley said instructors then explain the strange exercise: The tape symbolizes a young woman’s virginity. If she has sex before marriage, she’ll become dirty and will have trouble sticking in a relationship with her eventual husband. And then of course, there’s the fouled tape thing.
The technique hurts young women in particular, she said, or students who have already had sex that are sitting in the classroom. And it won’t help them form healthy sexualities.
Delta County Schools spokesperson Kurt Clay said he’s heard of the practice, too, but it hasn’t taken place in the school district for at least five years.
Plus, he said the technique was used by an “outside” instructor not employed by the district, who has since not been invited back to teach. It’s common for Colorado schools to bring in outside instructors for sex ed courses. What’s controversial is what they teach, and what passes for sex ed.
Last year, more than $800,000 of federal funds was granted specifically for abstinence-based sex ed, where students are told that not having sex at all is a way to prevent disease or pregnancy. The cash was paid to four nonprofit agencies for the sole purpose of promoting abstinence over safe-sex and human sexuality explanation.
Together, those groups provided abstinence only-based education to more than 10,000 students in the state last year, from metro Denver to Pueblo, the San Luis Valley and Delta County.
The Center for Relationship Education, one of the four groups, taught at Delta County High School last year, according to the state data.
Joneen Mackenzie, the group’s president, said instructors haven’t used the tape metaphor in at least six years, and the instructor who did was fired.
The group receives Title V funds to teach adolescents that unintended results from sex such as pregnancy will hurt their academic or career chances — not that having sex is morally wrong, Mackenzie said.
“Let them go to college with a fresh start,” she said.
The Title V programs are popular with parents who don’t want their children learning about science-based birth control, disease prevention and sexuality from teachers or outside experts.
The resistance to traditional sex education isn’t limited to rural schools. A handful of public charter schools across the state get waivers from state sexual education laws requiring instruction to be comprehensive, unbiased between abstinence or sexual orientation and evidence-based.
One school, Golden View Classical Academy in Golden, informs parents in its family handbook of its sex ed program.
“Sexuality in practice is best accompanied by marital commitment and fidelity,” it says. “Abstinence prior to marriage is the only 100% safe approach to sex physically, emotionally, morally, and spiritually.”
Golden View did not respond to a request for comment.
This school and others providing or contracting abstinence-only based sex ed are set firmly in the cross-hairs of state lawmakers aiming to close loopholes and banish religious ideology and abstinence-only overtones from public school sexual health instruction.
House Democrats, led by state Rep. Susan Lontine, who represents parts of Denver and Jefferson counties, passed a bill Tuesday that would fund comprehensive sex ed for the first time. HB19-1032 would also end the charter school exemption from state sex ed standards and ban schools from hiring abstinence-only based instruction groups, such as the Center for Relationship Education.
Most controversially, the bill would also ban explicit or implicit religious ideology in public school sex ed classrooms and ensure information about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender sexuality.
To pass the bill, House Democrats overcame hours of testy hearings and heated objections from House Republicans and Christian groups.
The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration and is likely to pass with support from Democrats, who are now in control of both legislative houses following the statewide “blue wave” last November.
Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat and openly gay man, told The Sentinel he supports the bill in theory but won’t endorse the legislation until he sees details.
Even if Polis signs the bill into law, it’s unclear whether more Colorado youth will have access to comprehensive sex ed at a time when rates of sexually transmitted diseases are surging.
After an earlier blue wave in 2013, Colorado became a patchwork of different types of sex ed in public schools.
That’s because Colorado is one of 24 states that doesn’t require students to complete sex ed courses before graduating.
But in 2013, Democratic lawmakers determined that if school districts did decide to provide sex ed to their students, the course materials had to be comprehensive and age appropriate, covering everything from abstinence to abortions without bias.
Lawmakers also banished abstinence-only based instruction that teaches youth to simply refrain from sex — but not indicate how to stay healthy if they don’t.
The law’s foundation is the idea that teachers should teach students how to have healthy sexualities at the appropriate age, and not judge sexualities or shame students if they do decide to have sex.
Abstinence-only, which is widely discredited as an effective risk prevention strategy, was also relegated to an equal level with other risk-reduction measures like the effective use of a condom; instructors now had to teach about both, but couldn’t show bias.
Most controversially, the law mandated instruction and information on LGBT identities, based on the idea that non-heterosexual relationships are normal and moral but also have their risks.
The LGBT protections are rare in the U.S., where more states explicitly ban mentioning LGBT sexualities in sex ed than those that address them without bias in public schools.
Where the 2013 law fell short, however, was its lack of funding.
Lawmakers set up a grant system to administer funds for comprehensive sex ed but declined to contribute any funds. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, which administers the grant program, not a single cent was given to school districts between 2013 and this year.
Tomei Kuehl, the interpersonal violence unit supervisor at Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the lack of federal funding is partly to blame.
That funding has largely dried up for evidence-based sexual education while funds flow for abstinence-based sex ed like the Title V program.
Mackenzie, the Center for Relationship Education president, said many rural school districts decided to offer no sex ed at all rather than abide with the 2013 standards.
Along with school district’s ability not to provide sex ed, parents could opt their children out of classes if they found the curricula offensive.
That’s still the case with the proposed changes.
With no mandate, however, some districts and schools continued to provide abstinence-only based sex ed by contracting nonprofit organizations funded with federal grant money instead of providing it themselves, which would violate the state law.
Seven charter schools secured one of two waivers from comprehensive sex ed standards in the 2016-2017 school year, according to CDE.
The public schools are allowed to seek private funding as well. In its family handbook, Golden View Classical Academy discloses its partnership with Michigan-based Hillsdale College, a conservative school linked to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that reportedly incorporates evangelical Christian perspectives into curricula.
The patchwork of sex ed in the state means a student in Aurora can be taught how to use a condom, a student in a metro Denver charter school can be instructed only to abstain from sex, and others still could have no sex ed at all.
The disparity is personal for Caitlyn Steiner, 17, a junior at Durango High School in the southwest Colorado town.
One of Steiner’s best friends is stuck in a toxic and controlling relationship, she said. For instance, she’s unable to hang out with her friends without her boyfriend being there.
Steiner’s friend won’t listen to her concerns, she said, and she probably needs an adult to help her see the light.
In part, Steiner blames lackluster sex ed at Durango High for her friends’ unwillingness, or inability, to separate from her controlling boyfriend.
Steiner transferred to Durango High after receiving sex ed at a local charter school, which she said was thorough and unbiased – the way it should be, in her opinion and according to the 2013 state standards. (The school, Animas High School, did not receive a waiver from comprehensive sex ed standards for the 2016-2017 school year.) Instructors there even treated lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender relationships on the same level as heterosexual ones, she said.
At Durango High, though: not so much.
“From everyone that I’ve heard there, sex ed is like two days long and all they really cover is how to put a condom on,” she said. “I’ve heard it’s not very comprehensive. But it also isn’t abstinence-only based, which is good,” she added.
Steiner said that, comparatively, Durango High students are lucky. She knows that many Colorado public schools flout state law and prioritize abstinence in sex ed instruction.
An emphasis on sexual consent would be an addition to the state’s sex ed standards in the new House bill. That’s in part why Steiner has helped mobilized community support for Democrat’s new attempt to give more students sex ed access.
The Democrats’ push to institute a new sex ed standards and funding is enabled by a blue wave giving them controlling of the legislature and the governor’s office.
But the effort also comes after a 2017 report from CDPHE showing the highest-ever reported cases of common sexually transmitted diseases including chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea.
Democrats agree that sex ed can help address issues like this. First and foremost, the bill would fund a comprehensive sex ed programs with a $1 million contribution to a state grant system – its first funding since 2013.
And to help unify the state’s sex ed patchwork, the bill would ban school districts from hiring nonprofits receiving the Title V federal funds, but prioritize rural districts for the new state grant money.
However, that grant money will continue to come with conditions on topics like addressing LGBT sexualities, abortion, and exclusion of religion that some Coloradans find both ridiculous and reprehensible.
HB19-1032 is the most-accessed bill on the Colorado Legislature’s website to date – and for good reason.
The bill drew speaker after speaker last month including many opponents at a Jan. 30 meeting of the House Health and Insurance Committee.
The hearing lasted 10 hours.
Speakers condemned the bill as an extension of an American cultural obsession with sex, an attempt to indoctrinate Colorado youth with government-determined notions of sexuality, a subversion of parental rights and an unconstitutional attempt to banish religious ideas from public schools.
A now-infamous speaker reportedly read a lewd poem implying that teaching students how to safely have gay sex would lead to bestiality.
More measured criticisms included those from Stefanie Curry of the Family Policy Alliance, a pro-life Christian group, who argued that parents should be able to teach their children about sexual matters – not public schools.
“Parents have every right to teach their children what these values mean to them, and this bill would allow the state to indoctrinate our children,” Curry said.
Opposition isn’t impressed that any parent now or if this bill passes can opt-out students from the programs.
Jeff Hunt also testified at the hearing against the bill. He’s a prominent conservative and vice president of the Centennial Institute, a conservative think tank headquartered at Colorado Christian University.
Hunt said the exclusion of implicit or explicit religious ideology in sex ed “pushes Christians out of the public square” and forces parents into private schools or homeschooling, where the rules don’t apply.
The Archbishop of Denver called last month for Catholics to abandon public schools, citing Catholic beliefs that God created two genders only.
“The surrounding culture has become increasingly challenging for Christians, particularly as Colorado’s Legislature looks to pass House Bill 1032”, Archbishop Samuel Aquila wrote in a Jan. 23 letter to Denver Catholics.
“I encourage every parent with school-aged children to consider this opportunity to learn about how a Catholic education can greatly benefit their children,” he added.
Hunt said the new standards weigh LGBT subjects more than religious and moral convictions – not treat them equally.
“For instance, a teacher could not say there is evidence that it is best for a child to be raised in a traditional monogamous relationship,” he said. “But that contains some religious overtones, so it couldn’t be included.”
Plus, he added, “It’s undercutting parental rights.”
Before the final House bill passed on Tuesday, Republican Rep. Mark Baisley of Douglas and Teller counties raised the same criticism.
“Parents need to be able to rely on their government to protect and defend their relationship with their children,” he said.
The final version includes an amendment respecting the “fundamental right” of parents to raise their children and guide them toward healthy sexualities as they see fit.
Rep. Lontine, who sponsored the bill, said there was no shortage of misinformation in the cacophonous debate – like the fact that parents can still opt their children out of sex ed if they object to the curricula.
“They are so convinced that we are teaching six-year-olds how to have sex or we are only indoctrinating kids to be gay,” she said of the opposition. “It’s hard to talk with someone who has been so irrational.”
WILL IT WORK?
Lontine also said that there’s no interest in mandating sex ed standards at the Legislature, which could require an overhaul of the state’s local control arrangement.
Without a binding mandate that school districts must offer comprehensive sex ed, it’s unclear if all Colorado students will have access to the information they need to make their own decisions.
In Delta County, school district spokesperson Kurt Clay said the district’s sex ed is already in line with state standards. Nonetheless, he’s expecting commotion with parents if the bill passes.
“It will make things more difficult, just because it’s conservative families,” he said of the bill. “It’s gonna change some of the conversations happening.”
The $1 million grant funding the sex ed would be split into $50,000 packages for almost twenty school districts, with priority given to rural school districts not offering any sex ed.
Hinkley, the ACLU staffer, said nonprofits currently funded with the Title V grant could still provide abstinence-based educations in the state by offering weekend classes that parents opt into, which many already offer.
The bill also doesn’t outlaw the use of Title V funds Colorado, so those groups can still receive the funds.
Andy Mattot, director of grants and programs at Title V-funded nonprofit Friends First, said the group doesn’t offer abstinence-only based sex ed but will continue to receive the abstinence-only based education federal funds.
“So it’s not do or die for us,” she said.
Then, there’s the possibility that school districts currently offering abstinence-only based educations through nonprofits wouldn’t accept the funds and change their curricula.
In that case, Lontine said, no sex ed is better for kids than abstinence-only based sex ed.
“They tell kids things like ‘condoms don’t work,’” she said. “They will give kids a piece of tape and tell them to put it on their arm, until it isn’t sticky anymore, and equate it to a woman who has had sex.
“Those are pretty harmful messages,” she added.