Listen to feature audio
Students in Minnesota are learning about sex all the time: on television and the internet and, as always, from each other. But lawmakers in St. Paul are at odds over how much of that learning should be at school. A provision passed by the House and Senate this spring would require schools to adopt wide-ranging sex education programs.
St. Paul, Minn. — Karesa Pettis-Berry goes to Central High School in St. Paul. She says she's living proof that sex education works.
"I had a gym teacher (in junior high) who was like, you need to learn these things about sex: when to say no; how to say no; how to get out of situations. Are you ready when you feel like you're ready, what you need to do. She taught us about emergency contraception," she says.
"She taught us how to put a condom on. She told us about birth control and all that. I think that helped a lot. I still hang out with a lot of girls from that health class, and none of us are pregnant to this day."
For kids across Minnesota though, that's less and less true. The Minnesota Department of Health this spring reported the first uptick in the state's teen pregnancy rate in 14 years. Sexually transmitted diseases are also on the rise.
The latest survey of school kids by the education department found that for the first time in more than a decade, more kids say they're having sex. And more of them are engaging in sex without birth control. In fact, one in seven sexually active high school seniors now say they never use birth control, up from one in nine in 2004.
That increase is helping a push for a statewide mandate for sex education this year. There isn't one now. State officials think only about five out of six schools offer sex education.
A proposed statewide requirement that all schools offer sex ed has earned approval in both the House and Senate. It's the furthest such an effort has ever gotten at the Legislature.
Outside the Capitol, parents and educators are divided over whether the measure would make it easier or more difficult to raise healthy kids.
Some, like parent Sanctus Belle, of Mankato, says they fear more sex education won't be the right sex education. She and her husband Mr. Belle already pulled their daughter out of sex ed classes this year.
"The town that we lived in prior to Mankato, was in Fairmont. They had a very good curriculum that was abstinence only. They really stressed waiting for marriage, preserving your purity. So I did allow my daughter to do the health course there. But in Mankato here, they did abstinence based, which is, wait until you're married, but if you can't, use safe sex...Which I think is a cop out."
She didn't want her daughter getting mixed messages between home and school, Bisonnette says.
"The curriculum involved education on safe sex practices, on contraception, abortion, things of that nature which are opposed to our Catholic beliefs."
Experts like Lynn Bretl think that's what sex ed classes are like in about three out of five schools in Minnesota schools, with fewer offering classes discouraging kids from having sex at all. That's changing, she says.
"Education is probably more restrictive that it was probably 10, 20 years ago," she says.
Bretl teaches at the University of Minnesota's school of epidemiology and community health. She's the author of the only statewide review of sex education in Minnesota. Her report, released last year, was based on survey data from the Minnesota health department and her experience in the field.
"Teachers are getting more afraid, or at least unsure, of what they can and cannot teach, and some of the most contentious topics, like homosexuality, how to use a condom, are not being taught much at all. Because a lot of the abstinence-only rhetoric at the federal level, it's really making people unsure of what they can teach," she says.
Advocates say a statewide sex education mandate would make that clearer.
But Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he's reluctant to preempt local school officials and parents. He's threatened a veto of the school policy bill that includes the sex ed mandate, and DFL legislators are now weighing the odds of challenging him. A House-Senate conference committee is meeting Monday to take up the school bill. Minnesota Public Radio