In December 2007, the Rhode Island branch of the Heritage Foundation, an abstinence-only-until-marriage education provider, shut its doors. For over two years, the provider had faced scrutiny from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), parents, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who argued that the program “promoted sexist stereotypes, isolated gay and lesbian students, and did not appear to comport with the state’s comprehensive sex education standards.” To give an example of the language these groups opposed, a choice quote from the Heritage curriculum, as printed in an article by the National Coalition to Support Sexuality Education: “Males are more sight orientated whereas females are more touch orientated. This is why girls need to be careful with what they wear, because males are looking! The girl might be thinking fashion, while the boy is thinking sex. For this reason, girls have a responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts.”
The Heritage program, which was taught in Pawtucket and Woonsocket public schools during the early 2000s, is one of many similar programs funded by the federal abstinence-only-until-marriage grant Title V, Section 510 of the Social Security Act. The 1996 law set forth an 8-point definition of an abstinence education program as one that teaches, among other concepts, that a “mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity” and that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” According to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, Congress funneled over $1.3 billion taxpayer dollars into abstinence-only programs between 2001 and 2009.
In recent years, public opinion has, on the whole, shifted away from abstinence towards a more comprehensive approach. According to a 2013 poll conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 69 percent of adults over the age of 18 agree that sex-ed classes should include accurate prevention methods in addition to messages about delaying sex until teens are ready for it. Over 20 states now reject Title V funding because of its strict restrictions. In 2009, Congress passed an appropriations bill that eliminated the majority of funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, reallocating over $100 million annually to evidence-based sex-ed initiatives that “encourage abstinence, promote appropriate condom use, and teach sexual communication skills.” But the transition hasn’t been smooth. $55 million of federal funds still go towards abstinence-based programs. Additionally, only 22 states in the U.S. currently mandate sex-ed in public schools; of these, only 18 require that information on contraceptives be provided. Even in these states, sex-ed programs are often implemented unevenly across school districts. Clearly, recognizing the values of comprehensive sex-ed and actually implementing these values do not go hand in hand.
The same holds true in Rhode Island. Since banning Heritage, Rhode Island has indicated a commitment to more progressive sex-ed policy. In 2007, Rhode Island became one of the first states to reject Title V funding. In August 2012, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) revised its health education content standards to be detailed and comprehensive. For example, according to the updated Rhode Island’s Coordinated School Health Program (CSHP) Rhode Island public school students between kindergarten and 4th grade are expected to demonstrate the ability to describe male and female reproductive anatomy and differentiate between “good and bad touch.” Students in grades five to eight are expected to learn about contraceptives, rape, and masturbation. By high school, Providence students are expected know about preventative health behaviors including breast and testicular self-exams, abortion as an alternative to birth in the event of an unplanned pregnancy, and fetal and infant health.
And these topics are only the tip of the iceberg. The CSHP, in a super-dense chart of 8-point font, suggests that Rhode Island students graduate high school as near experts on sex and sexual health. But the outcomes raise questions about the true depth and breadth of Rhode Island sex-ed: only 61 percent of Rhode Island teenagers grades 9-12 reported using a condom when last having sex, according to a study by the Rhode Island Alliance, a statewide organization dedicated to reducing teen pregnancy. Additionally, according to a Guttmacher Institute report in 2010, the teen pregnancy rate in Rhode Island is 44 pregnancies per 1000 women in the 15-19 age group, a rate better than the national average of 57 per 1000 women, but worse than other states in the region (Massachusetts’ rate was 37, New Hampshire’s—the best in the country— was 28).
Clearly, Rhode Island students are missing out on more than just the curriculum’s more minute points about when to get a mammogram or the difference between STDs and STIs. The reality, according to state health workers and educators, is that most Rhode Island students aren’t learning sex-ed according to the RIDE curriculum, but are instead learning from abstinence-based programs, or no program at all. Besty Shimberg, a Rhode Island educator and former policy researcher at Rhode Island Kids Count, told the Indy that most Rhode Island public school students she interacts with don’t know nearly enough about contraceptive options to make informed decisions about their sexual health.
This wide gap between policy and practice can be partly attributed to contradictions within state law. State law does mandate that Rhode Island schools offer sex-ed, including instruction in STIs, HIV, and contraception. According to the mandate, Rhode Island students are expected to receive instruction in health and physical education, which should average at least 20 minutes in each school day (notably, the mandate does not delineate between time allotted to health education and to physical education). But, contrary to RIDE’s expectations, the law still requires abstinence to be “emphasized” as the preferred method of preventing teen pregnancy and STDs, according to The Rhode Island Board of Education Act (Section 16-22-18).
For public school teachers and administrators with limited resources, time, and expertise in sex and sexual health education, the word “emphasized” is key. In many school districts, that single word wins out over the pages of expectations compiled in CSHP and makes comprehensive sex-ed appear optional to educators.
The perceived optionality of comprehensive sex-ed programs is encouraged by the total lack of both enforcement and assessment of how the curriculum is being enforced in different school districts. Neither the implementation of sex-ed programs nor student comprehension of health-related concepts have been evaluated in the over 10 years since RIDE re-appropriated funding for sex-ed assessments to more standard curricular assessments (the NECAP, in particular). Elliot Krieger, a public information officer at RIDE claimed in an interview that these assessments were cut primarily for financial reasons and that “acceptable” results of the assessments conducted in the early 2000s justified their retirement.
Without enforcement mechanisms, every district and school within it is at liberty to implement RIDE’s curriculum according to its budgetary restrictions and (though this factor is often unacknowledged) its community’s cultural and ideological leanings. Carolyn Mark, President of the Rhode Island National Organization for Women (RI NOW), explained in an interview with The Indy, “Different schools may decide to cover different subjects in different grades, or they may just cut out topics altogether. Schools are given extensive power in figuring out how to implement these standards.”
Rhode Island’s $67 million deficit (down from $300 million in 2011) has taken a toll on the state’s public schools. Just as in public schools across the country, when budgets are tight, the first programs to go are those deemed less-than-essential: arts, sports, and sex education. Mark believes that some of the energy and resources assigned towards implementing the core curriculum should be re-appropriated to implement sex-ed programs. “Some schools have been teaching the same curriculum for the past 10 years and don’t have the funds to update it,” Mark says. “Some don’t have the funds to implement sex-ed at all. This needs to change.” Shimberg echoed this sentiment, saying “We’re arming children with knowledge so they will be literate and so they can do math. We should also be arming them with information so they can be knowledgeable about their bodies and protect themselves from disease.”
Neither Mark nor Shimberg are hopeful about the possibility of progress, at least in the near future. Comprehensive sex-ed advocates in Rhode Island come up against significant cultural barriers, such as the state’s strong Catholic heritage (44 percent of Rhode Island’s population is Catholic, outnumbering members of other faiths and making Rhode Island the second most heavily Catholic state in the country after Massachusetts).
Shimberg also points out that the state’s deep culture of self-governance tends to create aversion to state-wide programs, “New England is all about town meetings. The way we implement education reflects that clearly: education is locally controlled down to the school boards.”
Mark suggests that another cultural barrier to more progressive sex-ed in the state is the faction of Rhode Islanders who don’t recognize teen pregnancy as an issue. “There are some women and men who do have the information they need but for a variety of other socio-economic factors are deciding that they want to have a child,” Mark says.
There are some communities in the state, however, that are eager to address the issue. For example parents, educators, and students in Westerly, a rural town on the southwestern shoreline of the state, are well aware of the consequences of insufficient sex-ed. Teen pregnancy is a particularly pressing issue in Westerly: according to a self-assessment conducted by the town in 2010, Westerly’s teens are 50 percent more likely to have babies than the state average. The study highlights key factors contributing to Westerly’s teen pregnancy rates: lack of public transportation leaves Westerly isolated, while lacking after-school activities. Most Westerly students do receive sex-ed in school, but students are expected to cover the entire health curriculum in only one semester. Sex-ed is limited to four topics: anatomy, abstinence, birth control, and STIs. In Westerly, where teen pregnancy maintains an undeniable and visible presence, the community self-assessment reported that an overwhelming majority of survey respondents believed that high schools should provide more comprehensive information about contraceptives to students.
Progress towards a more comprehensive sex-ed curriculum won’t happen unless this same sense of urgency is felt statewide. “This issue isn’t super politicized at the local level,” Mark says. “Really, there’s just a lack of attention.” The precedent exists for Rhode Island parents to put pressure on RIDE to make curricular changes, such as a recent effort to have Rhode Island opt-out of the Common Core. But parents are keeping quiet on sex-ed, and without that pressure, there’s little hope that RIDE will even acknowledge that a problem exists. When asked if RIDE was considering reviving the sex-ed assessment, Krieger, the public relations officer responded, “We are confident that schools are following the guidelines. We have no reason to think that these things are not being taught as expected.”
Recognizing the current inability of the state to enforce sex-ed education, non-profit and advocacy groups are stepping up to fill in the gaps in Rhode Island students’ knowledge. Planned Parenthood runs several in-state sexuality educational programs, such as Students Teaching About Responsible Sexuality (STARS), a high-school peer education group, and Teen Clinics—a once-a-month teens only clinic in Providence. Volunteer programs like Sex Ed by Brown Med, through which Brown medical students teach sex-ed to seventh and eighth grade students at Calcutt Middle School in Central Falls, are also gaining traction. These programs are important, but their reach is small and relies heavily on a transient, college-aged volunteer base.
In April 2012, an updated version of the aforementioned Heritage program was quietly added to the national Office of Adolescent Health lists of approved “evidence-based” programs eligible for government funds. The program, though abstinence-only in content, met the office of Health and Human Services’ two benchmarks for approval as “evidence-based”: it had a strong study design and demonstrated a statistically significant impacton students’ behavior. The criteria for these “evidence-based” programs appear comically vague, especially when compared with the level of detail in RIDE’s criteria. But without proper assessment and enforcement measures, both criteria lead to the same outcome: sex-ed programs that fail to reflect the needs and wishes of the communities they serve.