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Teaching About Abstinence in Two N.J. Schools

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Ridgewood, N.J.

Near the top of a sheet of newsprint taped to the blackboard here in Evelyn Shalom's 9th-grade class, students have written the word "horny'' as a reason teenage girls have sexual intercourse.

"I'll grant you the hormones are raging,'' says Ms. Shalom, "but who thinks it's a good reason to have sex?''

A few hands pop up, but the majority disagrees. "You can't just do it because you feel like it,'' says Kitty Lawn. "You have to control your emotions because of the consequences.''

Ms. Shalom concurs. "I think it's a terrible reason.''

Although she neither lectures nor dwells at length on sexual abstinence, the students in Ms. Shalom's classes at Ridgewood High School have no doubt how their teacher feels about teenage sex.

Sexual intercourse, in the health educator's view, is inappropriate for teenagers.

Emphasizing Abstinence

Ms. Shalom's methods may not be enough, however, for lawmakers who want to compel New Jersey public schools to stress abstinence as the only reliable method for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. (See Education Week, June 9, 1993.)

Last week, the legislature fell four votes shy of overriding a veto by James J. Florio, the outgoing Democratic Governor, of a bill mandating abstinence teaching.

The conflict has abated only temporarily. Sen. Gerald Cardinale, a prime sponsor of the vetoed bill, said last week that he plans to file a new version of the measure. If passed by the Republican-majority legislature, it will go to the new Governor, Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who Mr. Cardinale believes will be more sympathetic.

Critics see the bill as part of an ominous trend that could have a chilling effect on classrooms like Ms. Shalom's.

"This is part of a nationwide effort from people who are anti-sex-education,'' said Susan Wilson, a member of a coalition that opposed the bill. "They are going to push very, very hard on this.''

In numerous states, some parents and politicians, as well as conservative-Christian groups, are seeking to revamp sex education, arguing that the way it has been taught promotes teenage sex.

'We Promote Thought'

A pioneer in the field of family-life and human-sexuality education, the New Jersey state board of education in 1980 mandated that schools teach sex education.

The board left to local councils of educators, parents, and community members, however, the questions of what and how to teach. Parents were given the option of removing their children from the classes.

Beginning in 1988, a few Republicans in the legislature began pushing abstinence-instruction bills. They succeeded last year, only to have Governor Florio veto the legislation.

Under that bill, teachers would still have been able to discuss contraception. But they would have been required to emphasize that abstinence is the only certain way of preventing pregnancy and disease.

Although districts would not have had to toss old materials, new ones would have had to follow that theme. If parents contested the existing materials, the district would have had to remove them.

While the bill did not specify what level of parental dissatisfaction would force a switch, Assemblywoman Marion Crecco, the bill's other chief sponsor, told reporters that three complaining parents would suffice.

Mr. Cardinale said his new bill would require districts to allow all parents and members of the clergy in a community to become members of the local council. Materials would be eliminated if a majority of either the clergypersons or the parents on the council opposed them.

Educators are uncertain how the bill would affect their teaching. But they believe that some lawmakers have inaccurately portrayed their classroom activities.

"I want the public to know what really goes on in health-education classes,'' said Ms. Shalom. "We don't promote promiscuity; we promote discussion. We promote thought.''

"We promote sound decisionmaking ahead of time, not at the spur of the moment,'' she said. "For people in the legislature to think we promote promiscuity is absurd.''

Deciding About Sex

Ms. Shalom has taught health for 11 years in Ridgewood, a predominantly upper-middle-class community in northern New Jersey.

Having been exposed to sex education since they entered kindergarten, Ms. Shalom's students also are thoroughly accustomed to the subject as a topic of classroom discussion. They do not giggle or snicker as they discuss the issues.

On a day this month, the lesson centers on sexual decisionmaking.

Ms. Shalom divides her class into six small groups and gives them each a piece of newsprint upon which she has written one of six questions: Why do teenage girls have sexual intercourse? Why do they not? Why do teenage boys have intercourse? Why do they not? Why do teenagers who engage in sex use protection? Why do they not protect themselves?

The students are told to write down all the answers they can, and then the class will reconvene to discuss the lists.

A debate ensues in the group pondering the reasons boys do not engage in sex.

"How many teen guys say they're not mentally mature enough to have sex?'' a female student asks.

"Some would. I would,'' replies an earnest young man.

The task completed, the newsprint is taped to the blackboard.

As the lists are read, Ms. Shalom asks the students if the reasons they have cited are good.

Peer pressure, curiosity, and experimentation are brought up.

"Would the same reasons for doing this be the same reasons for trying drugs?'' Taylor Caprio asks.

"What do you think?'' asks Ms. Shalom.

"Yeah,'' says Ms. Caprio.

How Long To Wait?

In another class, the discussion turns to how long the students are willing to wait until they become sexually active.

"I don't think waiting until marriage is that important, but being with someone you love,'' says one young woman.

Ms. Shalom asks how many would wait until marriage. Five hands go up. Seriously in love? Sixteen hands. Both people consent? A single hand.

Ms. Shalom probes further. "How do you get to the point where you know you're really serious?''

The responses are longer in coming, but when they do, it is clear the students are thinking about consequences.

"Would you be willing to marry the person,'' says Dan Pollock.

"If you get pregnant, could you raise the baby,'' says Jamie Weil.

It is also clear the students want to learn about the consequences.

"We know everything we can about abstinence,'' says Jessica Medina. "You don't have sex. But [stressing abstinence] is not giving us all the facts and consequences.''

'Say No'

South of Ridgewood, Lisa Frederick stands before 20 6th graders and asks them what is the surest way not to get AIDS.

"Say no,'' they respond in unison.

"I can't hear you,'' she says.

"No,'' they yell louder.

"I can't hear you.''

"No,'' they yell even louder.

With big, bold strokes, she writes ABSTINENCE on the board.

The lesson here at the Florence Street Annex in Irvington, an urban district with predominantly African-American students, is AIDS.

Ms. Frederick presents the facts about the disease--how it is transmitted, myths about transmission, and methods of prevention.

The students express concern about the risks of eating next to an infected person or getting bitten by a mosquito.

While allaying those fears, Ms. Frederick tells them that it is unprotected sex and contaminated intravenous needles that pose the greatest threats.

"When you're in school, we tell you 'No sex.' What protects you when you get older?'' she asks.

While she waits for an answer, one boy whispers to a classmate.

"Are you listening to me?'' she asks him. "I could be talking about your life right now.''

After a brief discussion of condoms, she returns to a familiar refrain. "That is it, boys and girls. That is the only sure way to prevent you from getting the AIDS virus. Say no.''

Claire Scholz, the family-life supervisor in Irvington, said teachers there would not have to change their methods if the bill required only an emphasis on abstinence.

Minority Rule?

It is the provision about parents that concerns Ms. Scholz, even though parents participated fully in the curriculum development.

Irvington spent more than two years devising its curriculum. Meetings were held at every school, and parental requests that children be given more information than the district had originally planned were incorporated in the final course of study.

Moreover, parents are annually sent letters and a list of topics their children will be taught.

Despite these efforts, Ms. Scholz said she worries that the curriculum could be jeopardized by a few members of the community.

"Why only in this one area of the curriculum can parents be able to say they shouldn't or can't use it?'' she asked. "Can you imagine a parent coming in and saying we're no longer going to use a calculus book?''

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