|We have to advocate for programs that go beyond abstinence-only, or abstinence- until-marriage.|
Do you remember Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson? They are the two teenagers from a wealthy, upper-middle-class New Jersey suburb who were convicted of manslaughter in the death of their newborn son, whose body was left in a garbage bag in a dumpster outside a Delaware motel. The couple had successfully hidden Amy’s pregnancy from parents, high school friends, a college roommate, and even a family pediatrician, before delivering the baby themselves. Brian was released from prison in December. Amy will be free this month.
I revisit this teenage tragedy because of a disquieting new book by Doug Most, Always in Our Hearts: The Story of Amy Grossberg, Brian Peterson, and the Baby They Didn’t Want (St. Martin’s Press). To help adults, teenagers, parents, school administrators, physicians, and health/sexuality educators learn from this tragedy, Mr. Most analyzes the time, the place, and the people.
The author discusses many complicating factors in trying to arrive at the answer to “Why did this tragedy occur?” One of the factors he questions is the timing and overall quality of the high school sex education program that Amy and Brian took together. He makes the following points:
- Amy and Brian took sex education, or “family living,” in the fall of their senior year, nine months after they had begun to have intercourse (during which time they used a condom sporadically, because he found it embarrassing to buy them).
- The course was offered in their senior year, because the school approached the subject “cautiously and conservatively,” in keeping with parents’ beliefs that “if we don’t expose them to it, maybe they won’t try it.”
- The administration didn’t take the course seriously. Classes in other subjects were kept small to foster discussion. Health classes had up to 40 students. Little or no time was devoted to small-group exercises or role- playing to develop decisionmaking, communication, or refusal skills.
- School officials ignored editorials in the school paper that repeatedly criticized students for casual sexual practices. They ignored the fact that many students were having sex, and that some had had pregnancies and abortions.
- The school principal laughed off one teacher’s suggestion of buying and using an “Empathy Belly,” a product that weighs 30 pounds (the average weight gain in a pregnancy), as a deterrent to irresponsible sexual practices. The principal’s stated reason: “Parents would never allow it in the school.”
- The course focused primarily on the physiological facts: ways of abstaining; sexually transmitted diseases; and how to put on a condom. Students didn’t learn about the consequences of having sex, or their options should they become pregnant. They didn’t talk about emotions, feelings, attitudes, and values.
The course culminated in an assignment to give students a sense of the hard work involved in parenthood: They had to carry around five-pound bags of flour for a week. (Amy and Brian chose to carry Cabbage Patch dolls instead.) Students complied in order to get an automatic A in the course, but obviously got little from the exercise. There was flour all over the school, because students “kicked” around their “babies.”
Mr. Most’s book reminds me of the lines, “For of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.”
- If the school district had offered the sexuality education course in 9th grade before students had begun to have sex, it might have helped.
- If the administration had seen sexuality education as an important subject in students’ lives, as important to their well-being, it might have helped.
- If the course had taught young people how to develop communication, decisionmaking, and other behavioral skills through role- playing, small-group discussions, brainstorming, and similar strategies, it might have helped.
- If abstinence had been taught in ways that students could see its value, discussing, for example, its advantages and disadvantages, it might have helped.
- If Amy and Brian had role-played talking with their parents about sex, an unplanned pregnancy, or buying condoms, or had they watched other classmates act out such scenarios, it might have helped. (Amy and her mother never talked about sex.)
- If Amy and Brian had understood, by talking with other teenagers in small-group exercises, that a young person isn’t ready to have sex unless he or she is willing to use contraception each and every time and be ready to accept the consequences of an unintended pregnancy, it might have helped.
- If Amy and Brian had visited a neonatal clinic or talked with a teenage mother about the challenges of early parenthood—rather than carry around their Cabbage Patch dolls—it might have helped.
- If Amy and Brian had talked about the options of abortion, adoption, or counseling in class with their peers, it might have helped.
If the class had visited a family-planning clinic, it might have helped. (Amy was terrified of contracting a disease from an abortion clinic.)
But, we shall never know.
If Amy and Brian had role-played talking with their parents about sex, an unplanned pregnancy, or buying condoms, it might have helped.
I believe that the most important lesson for school administrators and for health/sexuality educators in Doug Most’s book is that we have to muster the courage to advocate for programs that are meaningful for young people, programs that are grounded in reality rather than adults’ wishes about teenage behaviors. We have to advocate for programs that go beyond abstinence-only, or abstinence-until-marriage; we must stand up to a single parent’s objections about the course’s content; and we must argue for programs that not only provide accurate, relevant information, but also develop behavioral skills, so that teens learn to talk to each other about sex in a respectful, mature, and responsible way.
If we take actions such as these, not only will we have strengthened school sexuality education programs, but we will also fulfill the goals of this new book: We will have learned from the tragedy of Amy and Brian and the baby they didn’t want, and make it less likely to recur.
Susan N. Wilson is the executive coordinator of the Network for Family Life, a program of the Rutgers University school of social work, in Piscataway, N.J. She manages an organization that provides resources, advocacy, and technical assistance to support comprehensive sexuality education programs in the public schools.
A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2000 edition of Education Week as A Better Sexuality Education Course Might Have Helped