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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Louisiana House committee rejects comprehensive sex ed

Posted By on Wed, Apr 4, 2018 at 6:05 PM

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Louisiana has one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections among people age 15-24. The state also has the seventh highest rate of teen pregnancies. Public health advocates and officials have pointed to a gap between the state's lack of comprehensive sex education and disproportionately high rates of STDs and unplanned pregnancies among school-aged young people.

But repeated attempts to change state laws to incorporate those programs — or at least anonymously ask young people if they've engaged in the kinds of behavior that would produce those kinds of statistics — have failed.

On April 4, after pushback from conservative Christian lobbying groups, a pair of bills to support comprehensive sex ed died in the state House Committee on Education.
State Rep. Patricia Smith's House Bill 499 would require comprehensive sex ed in public schools — a program that promotes abstinence but also includes information about preventing pregnancies and STDs and understanding sexual abuse. It follows an "age-appropriate, medically accurate" guideline promoting healthy relationships, stress management and communication. It also would allow parents or guardians to opt out.

Smith's House Bill 554 would allow high school students to participate in an anonymous survey that asks whether they've had sex and whether they have ever been forced to perform sex acts.

The survey is conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the survey has been in use since 1990, and Louisiana students already receive it with questions related to drug and alcohol use, smoking and other health and risk behaviors — state law forbids asking students about sexual health and activity. That bill also would allow parents and students to opt out from taking the survey.

State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, has sponsored a similar bill in the Senate. That bill won approval from the Senate's Committee on Health and Welfare and now heads to the full Senate for a vote.

Smith said without any data to show what kinds of risk behaviors students experience, lawmakers and program directors can't adequately address the health crises among young people.

"Those health statistics are unacceptable," said Lisanne Brown with the Louisiana Public Health Institute. "We need to provide them with information so they can protect themselves and have a safe and productive life."

Sashika Baunchand, the founder and program creator with sexual health program Outstanding Mature Girlz, said students involved with the program already are sexually active — the program provides them with "tools to make better decisions." Students in the program are able to receive information about STD testing from an environment without "stigma, of people coming down on them," she said. "Just imagine if they don’t get tested and end up losing their lives or getting ill."

"Facts are the facts," said state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans. "If what we are doing was working, I don’t know if we’d be talking about the bill."
Will Hall, public policy director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, and representatives from the Louisiana Family Forum, argued that sex ed should be decided by parents, not institutionalized in schools. Kristie Cross with the Louisiana Family Forum questioned the "accuracy and reliability of information that is self-reported" and added "what can be medicinal for one can be poison for another."

In 2017, the Louisiana Public Health Institute launched the statewide campaign Geaux Talk promoting sex ed in schools and at home. It largely is powered by the results of a statewide survey asking parents and caregivers whether sex ed should be a part of the curriculum — nearly 75 percent of respondents said it should be required.

But that report didn't convince legislators and sex ed opponents, despite asking each year sex ed comes up for a vote for "more data" or data from Louisiana parents, not from national studies or from other states.

"You can skew the statistics, but when you look at what’s happening at home … those are the statistics that tell us what we should be doing," Smith said. "If a parent is not there at home, and we’re teaching sex ed in [private] schools, then why do we leave hundreds of thousands of kids out?"

Louisiana's version of the CDC survey currently excludes questions asking whether the person taking the survey has had sex, how often within the last 12 months, whether a condom was used, and the person's sexual identity. It also excludes questions asking whether the person taking the survey has been forced to have sex, or whether a partner has abused them.

More than 40 states send out the full survey. Louisiana does not.

"We know unfortunately the really bad health outcomes among our adolescents, but we don’t know the behaviors that are leading to those very poor outcomes," Brown said.

April 4 also was designated Pro-Life Day at the capitol by anti-abortion advocacy group Louisiana Right to Life, and several abortion-related measures sailed out of committee.

"You can’t say you’re pro-life if you’re not going to take care of children after they’re born," Smith said. "When do you realize you as policymakers are a part of the problem?"

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