The Florida Department of Health shelled out almost $2 million in grants this year to organizations that teach abstinence-only education programs that place little emphasis on health-related information.

The aim of the program is to address the high rates of STDs and pregnancy among teenagers in Florida.

Thirteen organizations were granted $150,000 each this year by the state to provide “school and community-based abstinence education program services to help prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and school drop-out occurrences among teenagers.”

To carry out this mission, groups have adopted education plans that place a large emphasis on things such as “goal setting” and “negotiating skills” instead of health-related information.

Out of the 13 organizations that received grants, 11 chose between three different abstinence education curricula developed by outside organizations. The three curricula are “Project AIM (Adult Identity Mentoring),” “Promoting Health Among Teens!” and “Making a Difference!

“Project AIM” is described as a “program to reduce sexual risk and substance abuse risk among youth.” The program is designed to target at-risk youth. It is “based on the ‘theory of possible selves’ [which] states that a person’s motivation is determined by a balance of positive and negative ways in which people see themselves in the future.”

The curriculum “encourages youth to explore their personal interests, social surroundings and what they want to become as an adult.” It also includes activities that have students “envision themselves in a future career and connect current behavior with success as an adult.”

There is very little emphasis on actual sex or health information. Four of the 13 grantees are using “Project AIM.”

In a release about the state’s abstinence program (.pdf), the Department of Health describes “Project AIM” as having “a very small percentage of their curriculum devoted to sexuality education.” The department writes that the curriculum requires “modification” to be used as an “abstinence only” system.

According to Judith Selzer of Planned Parenthood of South Florida and the Treasure Coast, these programs only give “part of the message” and leave out students who might already be having sex. “These programs do not work for everyone,” she says.

According to the Department of Health grant application, all the state’s abstinence education programs are required (.pdf) to “not promote, endorse, distribute, demonstrate or provide instruction on the use of contraception or condoms.” The department explains that “information on contraception or condoms, if provided, must be age appropriate and presented only as it supports the abstinence message being presented.”

Florida Statute 1003.46 requires school board districts to “teach abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard for all school-age students while teaching the benefits of monogamous heterosexual marriage … [and] emphasize that abstinence from sexual activity is a certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, including acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and other associated health problems.”

When contacted by The Florida Independent, both the Florida Department of Education and the Department of Health said programs created by their agencies must follow this statute.

According to a report put together by The Healthy Teens Campaign in Florida and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, “Sex Education in the Sunshine State“ (.pdf), sex education policy is also “influenced by the Florida Sunshine State Standards, which are determined by the State Board of Education and establish the instructional standards for public K-12 education in the state”:

Sunshine State Standards for Physical Education require that courses stress abstinence from sexual activity. For example, in grades 9–12 students must learn “techniques for communicating care, consideration, and respect of self and others (e.g. encouragement, trust, and sexual abstinence).” The standards, however, do not require that students receive any explicit information on prevention methods for HIV and AIDS.

According to Selzer, these programs are required to not talk about safe sex — even if they are directly asked about safe sex practices by students.

“Promoting Health Among Teens!” is another curriculum being used by four grantees. Unlike “Project AIM,” it does discuss the risks of STDs and teen pregnancy. However, the focus of the program is on building “refusal and negotiation skills for practicing abstinence,” according to the Department of Health. It does not discuss alternative ways to prevent STDs and HIV.

“Making a Difference!,” which is used by two grantees, is described by the Department of Health as placing an “emphasis on the risks of adolescent sexual activity as related to one’s goals and dreams” — much like “Project AIM.” The department explains that “while condoms are acknowledged as a way to reduce the sexual risks, condom-use skills are not taught as part of the intervention.”

A 2007 study conducted by Mathemtica Policy Research, Inc. shows that abstinence education programs do not have an effect on the number of teens abstaining from sex. According to the study (.pdf), “none of the individual programs had statistically significant impacts on the rate of sexual abstinence, whether measured as either always remaining abstinent or being abstinent during the last 12 months.”

It also found that the “program and control group youth also did not differ in the number of partners with whom they had sex,” and it did not “affect the age at which sexually experienced youth first engaged in sexual intercourse.”

These programs did affect the perceived efficacy of condoms. According to the study:

Program group youth, however, were less likely than control group youth to perceive condoms as effective at preventing STDs. Compared with control group youth, program group youth were less likely to report that condoms are usually effective at preventing HIV, chlamydia and gonorrhea, and herpes and HPV. Furthermore, program group youth were more likely than control group youth to report that condoms are never effective at preventing these STDs.

Considering the growing number of STDs among teenagers, researchers said this finding was troubling.

The “Sex Education in the Sunshine State” report also shows that “Florida’s young people are increasingly impacted by the high rate of HIV infection in the state.” According to the report, “in 2007, persons under the age of 25 accounted for 15 percent of new HIV infections in the state.” Also in 2007, “youth accounted for 65.5 percent of new STD infections in Florida.”

In 2009, Florida was sixth in the nation for teen birth rates.

Individual school districts in Florida have already begun to incorporate comprehensive sex education programs to fill the gaps of the abstinence-only curricula. So far, Manatee County and Flagler County have moved forward with plans to open up their sex education programs.

But the subject of sex education remains politicized. Even though both school districts are moving towards comprehensive sex education, Planned Parenthood remains unwelcome to speak directly to students in schools.

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