When it comes to sex education in Hawaii, deciding how schools should address the subject is about as messy and confusing for the adults in charge as the topic itself can be for teenagers.
Hawaii is one of just 10 states that does not mandate students be provided access to sex education or taught about HIV/AIDS in public schools.
And since the controversy over the University of Hawaii’s Pono Choices curriculum, it’s one of just three states where, when sex education is offered, schools ask parents to sign their kids up instead of automatically enrolling students and then offering parents the option to pull them from class.
That could soon change if the state Board of Education approves a new sex ed policy aimed at requiring schools to provide comprehensive and medically accurate sex ed to all students.
The policy discussed by the BOE last week — but as of Tuesday not yet scheduled for a vote — is facing pushback from several state legislators and numerous parents who attended the meeting.
With all the confusion surrounding sex ed, and the state’s history of failed attempts to pass legislation addressing the issue, it’s unclear what will happen next.
Hawaii has long grappled with some alarming statistics when it comes to teens and sex.
There are some good numbers, to be sure. The number of teenage pregnancies in the state has steadily declined since the 1990s, as has the number of teens having sex. On average, teenagers in Hawaii are less likely to have sex than their mainland peers.
But if they do have sex, teens in Hawaii are more likely to engage in risky behavior.
“The problem with these courses, with comprehensive sex ed, is they encourage sexual activity, they don’t discourage it.” — Rep. Bob McDermott
In 2013, 54 percent of sexually active teenagers in Hawaii surveyed by the Centers for Disease Control reported not using a condom the last time they had intercourse, compared to 40.9 percent of students nationwide. That’s actually the lowest rate of condom usage among teens surveyed.
The state also has the 10th highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the nation, and the 12th highest rate of chlamydia infections, according to the Department of Education.
In Waianae and Nanakuli schools, one in 15 teenage girls got pregnant between 2008 and 2012 — more than twice the national average. Statewide, teen pregnancies cost taxpayers an estimated $32 million a year.
Click here to view teen pregnancy rates in Hawaii broken down by area. The national average was 26.5 births per 1,000 teenage girls ages 15 to 19.
Those are statistics that both advocates and opponents of comprehensive sex education agree are appalling. It’s how to tackle that issue that divides people.
“I think one unwanted pregnancy is one too many, and one sexually transmitted disease is one too many,” said state Rep. Bob McDermott, who led the drive against Pono Choices and is staunchly against the proposed BOE policy change. “The problem with these courses, with comprehensive sex ed, is they encourage sexual activity, they don’t discourage it.”
Advocates of sex education reform in Hawaii though stress that any curriculum adopted by schools would still be vetted by the DOE, and that comprehensive sex ed has nothing to do with encouraging kids to have sex. Rather, it’s about providing information that encourages abstinence but also gives students the information they need to be safe should they become sexually active.
But it’s also the unknown that has some legislators and health advocates concerned. There is currently no comprehensive tally of how many schools in Hawaii offer sex education or how many students are being taught.
“The data simply doesn’t exist at this point,” said Judith Clark, executive director of Hawaii Youth Services Network, which works with several groups to provide sex education in Hawaii. “My guess is there are probably a lot of schools out there that aren’t doing anything more than anatomy and puberty.”
Support for sex education is also widespread, Clark said.
Less than half of respondents in a 2012 survey commissioned by the Hawaii Youth Services network said they believed students in the state were well-educated when it came to sexual health. Nearly all survey participants — 97 percent — said it was important to have sex ed as a part of the state’s school curriculum.
Currently, it is up to individual schools to decide if they want to include sex education in their health curriculum, explains DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz.
If the schools do offer sex education, they are supposed to select from DOE-vetted and approved curriculum, and follow DOE and BOE guidelines, including that the information provided to students be medically accurate. The state also mandates that state-funded sex education programs conform to certain standards.
Sex ed in Hawaii is also supposed to be abstinence-based, meaning that students can be taught about contraceptives but abstinence is supposed to be stressed as the preferred alternative.
Pono Choices, after debate and modifications last year, remains one of the available programs for schools to choose from. Developed specifically for students in Hawaii, it came under fire last year from conservative lawmakers like McDermott and a large number of parents for its treatment of gay couples and sex, including references to the anus as a genital. The program was briefly suspended, and several changes were made before it was approved as a curriculum choice for the 2014-15 school year.
The DOE does not track which schools offer sex education or which curriculum they use if they do, Dela Cruz said.
But one big change in sex education after the uproar over Pono Choices is a directive from the DOE for schools to require parents to opt in instead of offering them the option to opt out of having their children participate.
“We’ve felt we’ve needed medically accurate sex education … we just realize that without information, kids are not making informed decisions.” — Rep. Cindy Evans
It’s a change that legislators like Rep. Cindy Evans — who was a sponsor of a bill this year that would have expanded existing legislation on sex ed — say they support because it puts parents in a more active decision-making role when it comes to sex education.
But some people worry the change is decreasing the number of students getting access to important information.
“Young people have the right to complete and accurate information about reproductive and sexual health. By shifting from an ‘opt-out’ to an ‘opt-in’ policy, fewer students will have access to the education they deserve and need,” said Diana Rhodes, director of policy at the national group Advocates for Youth.
Clark of the Hawaii Youth Services Network said that while the number of students that her organization provides sex education to has remained fairly steady, she’s seen an increased reluctance from parents in some parts of the state to sign their children up for sex education ever since the Pono Choices controversy.
And aside from the debate over “opt-in” or “opt-out,” the number of teens and preteens getting sex education appears to be on the decline.
The percentage of eighth-graders in Hawaii who report not learning about HIV or AIDS in school jumped from 10 percent in 1999 to 40 percent in 2013, according to Centers for Disease Control surveys.
The BOE started looking at updating its sex education policy several years ago as part a comprehensive audit of board policies, said BOE Member Nancy Jo Yamakawa Budd.
Budd, who chaired the committee that wrote the proposed revision to the BOE’s sex education policy, said the intention of the committee was to create a mandated sexual health education policy that would be medically accurate and age-appropriate. Under the policy, parents would be provided access to the curriculum, and given the ability to exempt kids from participation.
The policy would also expand what information students would be provided, and changes the name of the BOE policy from “Abstinence-based Education Policy” to “Sexual Health Education.” The revised policy would still call for instruction to include “education on abstinence,” in addition to contraception, and methods of disease prevention.
The committee held off on presenting its proposal until it had finished reviewing all the other board policies in its policy review audit. But the changes up for consideration predate the controversy over Pono Choices, and are not in response to any legislative efforts this year, Budd said.
Earlier in the legislative session, members of the Women’s Legislative Caucus introduced House Bill 459, which would have addressed multiple issues surrounding sex education in the state, but it didn’t go anywhere.
“The discussion on sex education in schools has been around for at least 10 years if not longer,” said Rep. Evans, one of the sponsors of HB 459. “It’s been a very big priority of a lot of women in the state Legislature over the years. We’ve felt we’ve needed medically accurate sex education … we just realize that without information, kids are not making informed decisions.”
Meanwhile, there’s confusion over what the new policy would actually do and what the current policy is.
“My guess is there are probably a lot of schools out there that aren’t doing anything more than anatomy and puberty.” — Judith Clark, Hawaii Youth Services Network
Rep. Andria Tupola, who is opposed to the BOE policy change, told Civil Beat that she thought the state didn’t need to pass legislation mandating sex education because she thought that schools already had to provide it. She is not alone in her opinion, which was based on vaguely worded testimony from the DOE about sex education and illustrates some of the confusion over the issue.
At the BOE meeting April 21, several parents who showed up to oppose the police change thought the BOE was voting on sex education curriculum.
McDermott said he opposed the proposed BOE policy because of its change from “opt-in” back to “opt-out,” but didn’t think the new policy would mandate the availability of sex education for all students — which it does.
The DOE spokeswoman also said she didn’t think the policy would require that all students in the state be offered sex education because — among other things — it didn’t include information on grade levels and curriculum.
And while the new policy would change the way that schools interact with parents when it comes to sex ed, that’s not because it would be changing BOE policy. There is, Budd said, no BOE policy regarding “opt-in” or “opt-out.” The “opt-in” decision was a directive issued by the DOE at the start of this school year.
“By not providing a uniform program, we will continue to see a lack of information around participation rates, curriculum, or implementation or enforcement of current state law and policy,” said Laurie Temple Field, director of public affairs and government relations at Planned Parenthood in Honolulu. “In turn, our youth will not have access to the information they need to make educated decisions about relationships and sex.”
It is up to the BOE chair to decide when — or if — the policy change will be scheduled for a vote.
Watch KITV news at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 29. Civil Beat’s Chad Blair will discuss this article and the state of sex education in Hawaii’s schools as part of a new segment that airs weekly on our media partner.