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New Report on Colorado Highlights Need for Vigilance against State’s Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Providers

In an effort to inform Colorado’s residents of both the gains made in the state and the challenges local schools districts face to implement comprehensive sexuality instruction consistent with state law, The Healthy Colorado Youth Alliance and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) released a report, Raising Expectations in the Rockies: Colorado's Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Industry and the Imperative for Real Sex Education. This new report, released in September 2010, provides an extensive overview of abstinence-only-until-marriage providers and the ways that these programs, without changing their fundamental message, have adapted to Colorado’s new policies while continuing to misinform the state’s youth. The report also address the gains made and the challenges local schools districts still face to implement comprehensive sexuality instruction consistent with state law.
 
In May 2007, after receiving bipartisan support from the Colorado state legislature, Governor Bill Ritter signed into law House Bill 1292 (HB07 1292), which established science-based content standards for sex education provided in public schools, family resource centers, and teen pregnancy prevention programs and set minimum requirements for curriculum used to teach human sexuality by school districts in Colorado. Previous Colorado law did not specify requirements for sex education. With the passage of HB07 1292, Colorado law states that when offered, sexuality education classes must emphasize abstinence as “the only certain way and the most effective way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases” and must use curricula that are science-based, age-appropriate, culturally relevant, medically accurate, and discuss contraception, including emergency contraception.[1] Additional requirements state that instruction must include topics such as parental involvement and family communication; responsible and healthy decision making; instruction on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS and HPV; the health benefits and potential side effects of using contraceptives and barrier methods; and, how alcohol and drug use impairs responsible and healthy decision making.[2]
 
Since the passage of HB07 1292 the state has continued to make strides to improve the sex education provided in public schools. In 2009, the Colorado State Board of Education developed the state’s first-ever health education standards. These standards establish learning expectations for topics related to human sexuality, growth and development, reproduction, and STDs, including HIV. However, more work still needs to be done to provide sexuality education, including instruction on disease prevention, to Colorado youth. Throughout the state, local health departments and community-based organizations are also working to assist and support local school districts in implementing comprehensive sexuality education curricula consistent with HB07 1292. As administrators and teachers change, consistent support and follow-up are necessary to ensure continuity of comprehensive curricula.
 
“At a time when local and statewide focus is on providing medically accurate sex education, this report gives us a great checkpoint to see how far we’ve come and how much more we have to do,” comments Lisa Olcese, executive director of The Healthy Colorado Youth Alliance. “Real sex ed includes messages about abstinence as one of many ways to avoid pregnancy and infection without imposing shame and judgment. This way, youth and their families can make informed decisions that are consistent with their own values.”[3]
 
The report found the there is a web of closely connected providers with ties to far-right organizations like Focus on the Family. Colorado’s most prominent abstinence-only-until-marriage providers commonly target specific populations that they deem to be “at-risk,” including Latino/a students, teen parents, low-income youth, and single-parent families. Little effort is made to encourage young people to explore their own values or make informed decisions about relationships. Instead, the state’s abstinence-only-until-marriage providers use curricula that promote marriage, rely on messages of fear and shame, and present biased information about gender, sexual orientation, and pregnancy options in a way that is harmful and exclusive to many youth. What is clear in the report is that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have been widely implemented in Colorado communities and classrooms and that program providers will continue to seek out ways to remain present by adapting and reframing their messages to appear consistent with state statute and community norms.
 
The recommendations detailed in the report call for the state to make HB07 1292 a reality by giving support to individual schools to ensure that sexuality education being taught in their schools is comprehensive and in line with Colorado state law. While Colorado has made significant strides in highlighting the importance of health education for youth across the state, the Colorado Department of Education needs to ensure that the standards implemented and the instruction provided emphasize science-based approaches to sexuality education. Raising Expectations in the Rockies also calls for a statewide resource for teachers and administrators. Because not all school staff are trained in science-based, medically accurate, culturally relevant, and age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education, a resource is needed with which these educators and administrators may adequately and appropriately respond to the needs and questions of students.
 
“What we’re seeing in this report is a need for vigilance,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of policy at SIECUS. “Although Colorado has made some impressive steps forward, abstinence-only-until-marriageproviders have shown that they’re willing to adapt in order to destabilize progress toward comprehensive sexuality education. Colorado’s youth deserve information and education, and this report shows how the state can combat the fear and shame-based messages that the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry promotes.” 
 
 


[1] Colorado Statute §22-1-110.5, accessed 16 September 2010, <http://www.michie.com/colorado/lpext.dll?f=templates&fn=main-h.htm&cp=%3e.%20>.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Peter Marcus, “Abstinence-only Backers Bashed,” Denver Daily News, 10 September 2010, accessed 16 September 2010, <http://www.thedenverdailynews.com/article.php?aID=9895>.

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