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September brings about the start of the 2010/2011 school year, and in North Carolina sexual health advocates are celebrating. The Healthy Youth Act (HB 88) goes into effect this year, effectively ending North Carolina’s decade long policy of abstinence-only sex education. This bill replaces abstinence-only sex education with a more comprehensive reproductive health and safety program that promotes abstinence as the best method for avoiding pregnancy and STI’s, but also teaches about contraception, safe sex, and healthy relationships. State Senator Ellie Kinnaird, one of the bills supporters, commented saying:

I am pleased that the NC Legislature was able to pass the Healthy Youth Act last session. However, it was not without great difficulty. Several religious groups and some Republican Senators objected to broadening the information available to students. But on the other side, we had many allies who worked the halls just as hard to make sure that students have accurate, complete information about sexual health. I believe that this information now available to students will show up in statistics down the road with fewer pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Having accurate, complete information will help others to make better decisions to protect themselves and avoid a direction that could have penalties for years to come.

Each NC school district is responsible for adopting a policy that includes information about both abstinence and contraception, but in some areas the process of implementing the new learning standards has been rocky. While an overwhelming 91.8% of North Carolina parents want the more detailed education, school systems seem to operate in fear of a very vocal minority that opposes effective sexuality education. Talking about contraceptives — just the very basics of what they are, how they work and how effective they are — is proving to be the most controversial aspect of the law. This is frustrating beyond belief for advocates like myself who understand that educating teens about how to protect themselves is a critical step in addressing our teen pregnancy crisis.

The same people who worked incredibly hard to stop the bill from passing are working to make sure the bill is not implemented. In some cases, they urge school administrators to do the bare minimum — like talking about all FDA approved contraceptives (as required) but only talking about their failure rates. The opposition even met with program staff in the state Department of Public Instruction to try to water down the Healthy Youth Act through bureaucratic means. In other cases, school administrators assume opposition is out there and are only tiptoeing toward compliance.

When legislators passed the Healthy Youth Act — and when we advocated for it — the goal was to make certain that every teenager had the basic knowledge and skills necessary to avoid pregnancy and STDs. The law itself finally provides North Carolina educators the chance to use effective sexuality education to address the state’s disturbingly high teen pregnancy rate.

But simply passing a law wasn’t good enough. That’s why I’m working along with fellow youth activists in NC to find out who’s doing what, which school systems are refusing to follow the law, and how we can support school systems who honestly want to provide an effective education for students. The devil is in the details here, but with teens more than 19,000 teens becoming pregnant every year in NC, we young people deserve EVERY school in North Carolina teaching accurate and complete information about sexuality and sexual health.

For more information on our efforts to implement this new curriculum, you can follow the Teen Health Now youth activism council, a group of young people dedicated to promoting sexual health in North Carolina. We have a Facebook Page and are on Twitter — please reach out to us if you have any questions, ideas, or stories.