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Bob McDermott needs to shut up about sex ed

The socially conservative state rep. is doing his constituents, and all the children in Hawai‘i's public school system, a disservice with his continuing crusade against the BOE's new comprehensive sexual education policy

Will Caron

Hawaiʻi’s public schools are in serious need of an updated, comprehensive sexual education strategy to help students who are sexually active, or considering becoming sexually active, make informed decisions that are in their best interests. Hawaiʻi has one of the lowest rates of condom use among sexually active youth compared to the rest of the nation, and the 2013 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) found that 54 percent of Hawai‘i youth did not use a condom during their last sexual intercourse compared to 41 percent of youth nationally.

As a direct result, Hawai‘i has a high rate of teen pregnancy, particularly in rural areas. For the aggregated years of 2008–12, pregnancies among females aged 15–19 years old in the state of Hawai‘i were 49.6 per 1,000 women. The national average for the same time period was 29.4 pregnancies per 1,000 women (see Hawaii Health Data Warehouse, Hawaii State Department of Health, Office of Health Status Monitoring. Pregnancies in Hawaii (Residents Only), for Females Aged 15–19 Years, for State and County, for the Aggregated Years 2008–2012. Rep Creat 2/25/2015).

A wealth of data and recommendations for best sexual education practices exists, and the Hawai‘i Board of Education (BOE) began moving to appropriately update its policies regarding sexual education in 2013, around the same time the Hawai‘i State Legislature was engaged in a special session to consider a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. Socially conservative, religiously evangelical representative Bob McDermott (District 40, ‘Ewa Beach) was a major opposition voice in granting same-sex couples the civil right to marry. He has, likewise, been a constant drag on reforming the state’s sex ed policies.

Whether Rep. McDermott likes it or not (and he really doesn’t like it), the fact is some teenagers are always going to engage in sexual intercourse (22.3 percent of Hawaiʻi’s high school students are currently sexually active). Abstinence programs, like the one the BOE has had in place since 1995, do not do an effective job at reducing the spread of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) or decreasing teen pregnancy rates. To the contrary, there is evidence that these kinds of programs can actually deter the use of contraception devices like condoms, which exacerbates such outcomes.

Support for abstinence-based sexual education and demonization of comprehensive approaches may be helpful in rallying an aging, conservative, often religious voting base like the ones that can be found within sizable pockets of ‘Ewa Beach, Pauoa and Kalihi Valley, Waipahu and Kāneʻohe, for example. Rep. McDermott has won five elections (1996, ‘98, 2000, 2012, ‘14) in ‘Ewa Beach, each time winning with just under or over 50 percent of the district vote (between 2–3 thousand votes).

Attempts to move the state’s sex ed reform forward through the legislature have thus far failed. In 2014, a comprehensive sex ed bill died in the Senate Ways and Means committee and in 2015, reform advocates tried to put together a task force to find and propose best practices for sex ed in Hawai‘i that stalled out in conference committee.

Meanwhile, as part of a wider review of department policies, the BOE went ahead and passed a revision to the public school sex education policy on June 16, 2015, replacing the outdated abstinence program with a comprehensive approach to sexual health education. Rep. McDermott continues to sensationalize and lie about certain aspects of the policy change (which has yet to be implemented) to scare parents, stir up homophobia and advance a bizarre, puritanical agenda. His latest move was an “informational” session held August 31, 2016 at the State Capitol. The press release from the event is dripping with misinformation and overt propaganda:

Hawaii First State in the Nation to mandate Sexuality Education for Kindergarten!

Last evening in the State Capitol, State Representative Bob McDermott hosted an educational event designed to alert, engage, and empower parents with information regarding the recently passed BOE policy mandating sexuality education in Kindergarten. While not yet implemented, the proposal is a cause of great concern an angst to parents, teachers, and principals.

Special guest speaker was Mrs. Sharon Slater chair of the United Nations Caucus on the Family who talked about the “attack on the family” and the sexualization of our youth without parental consent or involvement.

McDermott noted that Hawaii is the first and only state in the nation where the official statewide policy (103.5) is sexuality education beginning in Kindergarten. In addition, any notion of abstinence or delaying the onset of early sexual activity was also jettisoned in the policy change by adopting Comprehensive Sexuality Education complete with the new components of “Gender Ideology” which have no basis in science. None.

McDermott explained how Planned Parenthood lobbied the BOE to secure the policy change with one public hearing. Despite the fact the Superintendent was not supportive of the change, despite the fact that public testimony was 90 against the change and 66 in support, the reckless board members bowed at the altar of the Planned Parenthood sex hustlers and decreed a policy of sexuality education in KINDERGARTEN!

Why? To inculcate these precious innocent children with the “politically correct” notions of gender roles, gender ideology, and that homosexuality and transgenderism are the healthy, wholesome moral equivalents of male/female reproduction. The left believes that the Parents must not have time to impart their politically incorrect versions of morality and decency onto their 5 year old children.  This is why it was imperative for Planned Parenthood to get this into the early grades.

McDermott said the good news is that this policy has not yet been implemented, because they have no standards, they have no curriculum, they have had no public vetting or review process of any proposed new curriculum; but it’s on the books and ready to go.

This policy is a national embarrassment. McDermott has been trying to get straight answers from the BOE, but says, “It is like making a soup sandwich…impossible!”

Rep. McDermott is not helping his constituents or their children by thwarting public health progress that would give students the necessary resources and proper information, at each step along the path to maturity, to make good life decisions. And, for that reason, Rep. McDermott really needs to shut up about sex education.

What Comprehensive Sex Ed Actually Means

I’m going to go ahead and quickly move past the asinine soup–sandwich—er—“metaphor,” and even the clear bigotry, intolerance and disrespect Rep. McDermott expresses in this press release toward our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and begin, instead, with the “KINDERGARTEN!” part. After all, this is an understandable place for Rep. McDermott to focus his attack—I wouldn’t want my kindergartner to be learning about sex either. Of course, I know better than to take Rep. McDermott at his word and my goal for you, after reading this, is to know the same.

First, while 103.5 does not actually mention Kindergarten anywhere at all, it is true that the “comprehensive method” of sexual education that the new policy advocates for does call for the introduction of sex education programs, typically, in Kindergarten. But slow down for a minute: sex education means a lot more than just talking about intercourse, contraceptives and STIs. No one is talking about walking your 5-year-old through the complicated and, often, difficult journey of piecing together one’s sexual identity. That stuff can, and should, wait until kids are older—and our educators and the researchers that supply them with data know that.

Second, no one said that parents shouldn’t be a major—or even the primary—factor in educating their kids about sex. As the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States National Guidelines Taskforce concluded back in 2004, “sexual health education is not solely provided or learned from a single course or conversation; it is rather a synthesis of lifetime experiences and knowledge to form attitudes, beliefs, and values on identity, relationships, and intimacy.” But school-based sex education programs can help to promote these conversations.

The National Guidelines Task Force has identified six essential concept areas for comprehensive sex education which include “medically accurate information on human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and culture.” The comprehensive approach focuses on developing certain “life behaviors” as outcomes of instruction. For each of the broad categories identified as a key concept, the guidelines note several life behaviors of a sexually healthy adult that reflect actions students will be able to take after having applied the information and skills from their years of education in school. For example, life behaviors under Key Concept 3: Personal Skills, include: “Identify and live according to one’s values”; “Take responsibility for one’s own behavior”; and “Practice effective decision-making.” (A complete list of life behaviors appears on page 14 of the guidelines.) While those behaviors are connected to sexual health, they certainly aren’t explicit or inappropriate for children to begin learning about as soon as they enter school.

The process of growing into a sexually healthy adult has a lot more to it than rolling a latex condom over a zucchini. And research has shown that a lot of it is completely age-appropriate curriculum that can, and should, to be taught from Kindergarten onward. In contrast, typical abstinence-based programs, like Hawai‘i’s current policy, don’t begin until the 7th and 8th grade—after some students are already becoming sexually active, and when it may already be too late to prevent students from making potentially life-altering mistakes.

In addition, many abstinence programs use puritanical scare tactics to portray sexual behavior as dangerous and harmful, rather than using science to help teens understand sex as an important aspect of society and of their own life cycles. Indeed, many traditional abstinence programs (up to 80 percent, finds one study conducted for the Colorado State House Committee on Governmental Reform) are medically inaccurate, provide erroneous, negative information about condoms and STIs and are often subject to heteronormative bias (like the kind Rep. McDermott can’t seem to help but ejaculate at every possible chance he gets) that can alienate teens that are struggling to define their sexual identity.

Evidence pointing to the value of comprehensive sexual education, meanwhile, is strong. Those who oppose comprehensive sex education in schools, including Rep. McDermott, site an unproven theory that sex education increases the likelihood that young people will engage in sex. However, evaluation has shown that sex education that includes information about both abstinence and contraception does not increase the frequency of youth engaging in sex or make them more likely to do so at earlier ages (see also, Baldo M, Aggleton P, Slutkin G. Presentation at the IXth International Conference on AIDS. Berlin: Geneva: World health Organization; 1993. Does Sex Education Lead to Earlier or Increased Sexual Activity in Youth?). States with comprehensive sex education programs that include abstinence in the curriculum, but do not emphasize abstinence as the only, or the most highly preferred option, have been found to have lower teen pregnancy rates.

As part of the risk reduction approach, comprehensive programs also cover topics such as STIs including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and contraceptive methods, including condom use, but not until students are, typically, 12 years old. Sexual education for Kindergarteners and early elementary school focuses on interpersonal relationships and social behaviors. The only sexual health messages that the comprehensive approach calls for between the ages of 5–9 are that “Girls and boys need to take care of their bodies during childhood and adolescence” and that, “Like other body parts, the genitals need care.” That’s it. Even from the ages of 9–12, sex-ed focuses on teaching that “Boys and girls should keep their genitals clean, healthy, and free from injury.” These are perfectly reasonable things to teach children; important information that can help prepare them to better handle the more complicated and difficult aspects of sexual health that they will have to deal with beginning around age 12.

Evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs, like the Safer Choices Program, have been shown to change teens’ sexual behavior by increasing youths’ knowledge and understanding of risk (eg, pregnancy, STI) and protective (eg, contraception, sexual values and confidence to avoid unprotected sex) factors that influence behavior. In addition, for every dollar invested in the Safer Choices Program, $2.65 was saved in medical and social costs by preventing pregnancy and STIs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees that school-based sex education programs can be an effective and cost-saving method for reducing teen pregnancy and STIs.

Updating Sex Ed in Hawai‘i

Sexual health education is provided to youth in Hawai‘i as part of their health education curriculum. The Hawai‘i Content and Performance Standards (HCPS) III Health Education Standards also includes content standards in areas such as mental and emotional health; healthy eating and activity; safety and preventing violence and injury; tobacco, alcohol and drug free lifestyles. The policy revision was part of an ongoing comprehensive policy review by the BOE, that also included policies related to discipline, suspension, graduation requirements and Hawaiian language.

Prior to the June 16, 2015 revision of the sex education policy by the BOE, sexual health education was required by BOE Policy 2110 to be abstinence-based education and use one of the seven Hawai‘i Department of Education (DOE) approved curricula. Abstinence-Based Education Policy 2110 supported abstinence as the “most responsible way to prevent unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS, and consequent emotional distress.”

Sexual Health Education Policy 103.5 replaces the previous abstinence-based policy and requires comprehensive sexual health education to be offered in Hawai‘i Public Schools. The new policy, in accordance with state law (HRS 321-11.1), states that the DOE “shall provide sexual health education to include age appropriate, medically accurate, health education.” The new policy further clarifies that education must include both abstinence and contraception and must include methods of contraception to prevent pregnancy and STIs, including HIV.

The policy also encourages healthy relationships and communication skills along with developing certain life skills such as critical thinking, decision making and making decisions about sexuality. Parents are no longer required to opt-in their children for instruction. They are, however, allowed to excuse their child with a written request, should they agree with Rep. McDermott. The new policy goes even further to make an effort to address and include the important role that parents have in their child’s sexual health education. A provision in the policy requires that a description of the curriculum used by each school be available for parents. Schools are encouraged to share this information via the school’s website, mail, and parent information nights.

However, one limitation that remains is that the state does not mandate that sexual health or HIV education be culturally appropriate and unbiased. Eight states, including California, have sexual health legislation that protects youth from instruction that is biased toward disability, gender, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and religion.

Contraception may include a discussion of birth control devices; however, the DOE forbids the distribution of condoms or other prophylactic devices on school grounds or at activities related to school.

McDermott’s Pants Are On Fire

To try and withhold crucial information about human sexual health and physiology and to malign scientific conclusions and vetted best practices for a sexually healthy body and sexually responsible relationships is to do students a disservice, regardless of the reasons. Whether Rep. McDermott is engaged in this anachronistic crusade against comprehensive sex ed for political reasons, or because he is genuinely uncomfortable with the idea of sex, or whether it’s a question of faith for him, such a strategy is irresponsible from a health and safety standpoint, disingenuous from a societal one and irrelevant from a legal perspective.

For a community leader like Rep. McDermott to try and scare parents, his constituents, into clinging to an archaic and inferior system even in the face of overwhelming evidence that Hawai‘i’s new comprehensive strategy would reduce the spread of STIs and lower teen pregnancy rates—particularly in rural areas like ‘Ewa—is irresponsible.

The “attack on the family” argument pushed by Rep. McDermott and articulated at his “informational” meeting by Sharon Slater of the United Nations Caucus on the Family (UNCF, a lobbying group, and not actually part of the United Nations), uses Article 16 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights as a shield to promote attacks on people whose lifestyles or family structures do not align with heteronormative, puritan values.

Teen pregnancy and subsequent teen births have significant risks, consequences and social disadvantages for teen parents and their children. Teenage mothers are less likely to complete school, go to college, and more likely to remain single, which in turn puts them at high risk for living in poverty. Children born to teen parents are more likely to become teenage parents themselves as well as have less stimulating home environments, lower cognitive development, less education, more behavior problems and, for boys of teenage parents, higher rates of incarceration compared to children born to non-teen parents (Maynard RA, Shaw LB. Kids having kids: economic costs and social consequences of teen pregnancy. Fem Econ. 2000;6(1): 135–140). It is estimated that, in 2010, teen childbearing cost the United States approximately $9.4 billion from federal, state and local taxes.

STIs are also a serious public health issue and can result in long-term health effects. Since 2001, cases of gonorrhea have continued to rise in Hawai‘i along with continued concerns with treatment due to antibiotic resistance. In 2014, Hawai‘i ranked 23rd nationally in chlamydial infections (457 per 100,000 persons). Chlamydia infections are high among male adolescents 10–19 years (1,944 cases per 100,000) and among females (4,446 cases per 100,000) (see Department of Business Economic Development & Tourism Estimates, author. 2014 Hawaii STD Cases, Hawaii vs US Rates. 2014).

Efforts to reduce teen pregnancy in Hawai‘i can help reduce poverty, increase educational achievement, and improve the social welfare of children and their families. Reducing teen pregnancy and birth would also help to reduce public spending on teen pregnancies and strengthen both the United States and Hawai‘i’s economic competitiveness. Efforts to increase protection during sexual activities could also reduce STIs including chlamydia and gonorrhea as well as protect against the transmission of HIV.

Teens in rural communities in Hawai‘i can face health access consequences associated with living in geographically remote areas. They may have limited access to health care providers and public clinics, both of which are key locations for youth to receive sexual health and contraception education. Additionally, teens in rural communities may have issues with transportation and fear confidentiality, since the local providers may know or even be part of the teen’s family or social networks (see also, Patients like us: pregnant and parenting teens view the health care system. Michels TM, Public Health Rep. 2000 Nov-Dec; 115(6):557-75). While teen birth rates have been declining since the 1990s, rates in rural communities have been slower to decline (see also, New York NGI. “U.S. Teenage Pregnancies, Births and Abortions, 2010: National and State Trends by Age, Race and Ethnicity”) The National Campaign’s 2013 analysis on Teen Childbearing in Rural America identified that the 2010 teen birth rate in rural counties was approximately one third higher than the rest of the country.

Mandatory sex education in public schools allows those students in rural settings of the state to receive similar sexual health education as their urban counterparts. Without a mandate, small rural schools, which typically have fewer resources than urban schools, are less likely to offer sex education to their students. This is particularly important as Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders in rural areas of Hawai‘i have some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the state and nationwide (see Warehouse HHD, Health HSD of, Monitoring O of HS. Live Births in Hawaii (Residents Only), for Females Aged 15–19 years, by School Complex and Mother’s Race/Ethnicity, for the Aggregated Years 2008–2012. Rep Creat 2/17/2015).

Some have reported that rural communities are more conservative when it comes to sexual education. But assumptions about opposition from rural communities toward sex education should not deter a true leader from approaching parents and gathering feedback about community support and concerns regarding educational programs and curricula. Outside of education from family members, research has found parents in rural communities see school as a highly valuable place to supplement sex education instruction (see Rural parents’ communication with their teen-agers about sexual issues. Jordan TR, Price JH, Fitzgerald S, J Sch Health. 2000 Oct; 70(8):338-44).

But instead of citing any of this wealth of information and data to try and reach out to the people of his district in an informed manner—instead of honestly trying to do what is best for the health of his constituents and their children—Rep. McDermott continues to block the BOE’s policy reform with fear-mongering. The very things that groups like the UNCF claim to care about, like providing for “the right of children to grow up in a family environment and to know and be cared for by their parents,” as is guaranteed by Article 16, are threatened by the spread of STIs and high rates of teen pregnancy.

Outdated abstinence-based programs have been proven ineffective and Hawai‘i’s has continuously failed students for the past 20 years. This is a chance to help reverse teen pregnancy and STI trends, to secure the health and safety of our communities and to save the government—and, therefore, the taxpayers—money. Trust in research and data, not myths and stereotypes promoted by lobbying groups and the politicians they back. Trust in the ability of properly-funded educators to learn all they can about best-practices for students’ sexual health and to impart that knowledge with a subtle empathy for their teen-aged charges and, yes, trust in your own ability to communicate effectively with your child. But, most importantly, trust in the students to make good decisions when they have access to data and information. Kids—even at a very young age—possess intelligence, curiosity and good judgment, and respond better to truth and information than lies and a misplaced, ill-conceived attempt to shelter them. Empower them with knowledge and reward them with your trust, and they won’t disappoint you. But withhold that knowledge and power from them, and it is you who will fail them.

Rep. McDermott will face Democratic Party challenger Rose Martinez in this year’s general election. Martinez is a proponent of Housing First, wants to crackdown on illegal vacation rentals and doesn’t believe police brutality is a problem in Hawai‘i.