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Thursday, May 3, 2012 05:29 am

Not too young to know

Targeting STDs, teen pregnancy through better sex ed

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At least 21 children between the ages of 12 and 14 had the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia in 2006, according to the Sangamon County Department of Public Health.

That startling fact illustrates the growing trend of young people contracting STDs across the nation. One Illinois activist and lobbyist is pushing the state to modernize sex education in hopes of reversing that trend.

Khadine Bennett, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois, says schools teaching sex education should ensure their curriculum is comprehensive, age-appropriate and medically accurate. Bennett is pushing legislation in the Illinois General Assembly to incorporate those principles into existing sex education courses statewide.

Bennett says existing law instructs schools to take an “abstinence only” approach to sex education, meaning it stresses celibacy without instruction on contraception and other aspects of sex. Her bill would retain the abstinence focus in sex education, but would mandate additional health and safety information for students who decide to have sex. Bennett says that’s a more realistic approach than only teaching abstinence.

“Sex education is a bit like driver’s education,” Bennett says. “There are some young people who may take driver’s ed, get their learner’s permit and never stop driving, but there are also young people who may say, ‘I’m not ready to drive yet.’ We still provide them with all the information. We don’t tell them about some rules and not about others.”

The bill would require schools that teach sex education to use comprehensive, medically accurate and age-appropriate curricula. Schools that don’t currently teach sex education would not be required to do so. The bill also allows parents to view a school’s curriculum and choose to pull their child from the class, while school districts can choose from several approved lesson plans.

Bennett has pushed the bill in the Illinois General Assembly for about two years, and she says it’s controversial because sex education “conjures up a particular idea in people’s minds.”

“It’s not about teaching kids how to have sex,” Bennett says. “It’s about teaching kids how to make healthy decisions. While we want students to learn about contraception, if you look at the curriculum, it also talks about things like healthy relationships, self-esteem, boundaries, and how to talk to an adult if you have questions about these issues.”

The bill has broad support among House and Senate Democrats, but has no Republican sponsors in either chamber. It passed the Senate narrowly with a 30-28 vote in June 2011, and now awaits a vote in the House. Several religious, political and medical groups in Illinois – including the Illinois State Medical Society – support the bill. Bennett says she’s hopeful the bill will pass during the current legislative session.

Bennett calls the legislation a “minor tweak” to existing law and says it’s intended to address teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases among young people.

Data collected by the Illinois Department of Public Health show a startling prevalence of STDs among teens. In 2011, there were 449 cases of chlamydia reported in Sangamon County among young people ages 15-19. That accounts for more than 37 percent of all reported cases county-wide.  There were also 154 cases of gonorrhea reported in young people ages 15-19 that year, accounting for 31 percent of all reported cases county-wide.

The Illinois Department of Public Health says out of the 19 million new gonorrhea and chlamydia infections reported nationwide each year, nearly half are found in teens ages 15-19. Sabrina Miller, spokeswoman for IDPH, says Illinois – unlike many other states – has plenty of resources available to young people and the general public regarding STDs.

 “We are committed to doing whatever it takes to make sure that people are getting tested and getting treatment when needed, and also having a safe space to ask questions and receive accurate information about STDs when and where it is needed,” Miller says.

IDPH offers an HIV/AIDS & STD hotline, 800-243-2437, along with a list of STD screening and treatment sites at its website, www.idph.state.il.us.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

For more information:%u2008Sangamon County Dept. of Public Health, STD resources from Illinois Dept. of Public Health, Information on the Bill.

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