A snippet of a pending article from my first trip to Mississippi in June 2012:
It was already ninety-six degrees at 9:30 in the morning when I pulled into the Oxford, Mississippi high school parking lot, looking for school superintendent, Brian Harvey. By the time I got to Oxford on June 25th to attend a special school board meeting called to vote on a sex-ed policy, Harvey had become semi-famous in regional reporting circles for not talking to press. One reporter told me I would never get a call back – she had already tried and tried. He had become adept at dodging questions about his unilaterial decision to implement an abstinence-only-until-marriage program called Choosing the Best (CTB) in the Oxford School District (OSD).
I dialed Harvey’s phone number as I walked toward his building, his assistant answered. I told her I was heading their way and had called earlier trying to talk to Mr. Harvey; she asked me to please hold.
Less than a minute later a man walked purposefully out of the building and into his car. I started walking toward the car (still on hold) and as the man backed up to pull away he looked directly at me – it was superintendent Harvey – I recognized him from his OSD biography page.
His decision on CTB was made behind closed doors without expert, public or student input and caused an immediate community backlash. It was the secrecy of the decision that bothered them. But what really took the cake is that Choosing the Best isn’t sexual education at all.
It, like almost all other ab-only programs is based on a religious, primarialy Christian ideal that sex within the confines of heterosexual marriage is the only acceptible outcome. These programs shun conversations about contraception and frank biological discussions of where babies come from.
The media began reporting on the issue; The Oxford Eagle, a Memphis television station, Mississippi Public Broadcasting and numerous other outlets. It’s no wonder Harvey would leave just as I arrived.
All of the regional interest directed at the Oxford decision was due to a bill called HR999. This bill was historic. It would, for the first time ever, require Mississippi Public Schools to choose a sex-education curriculum.
Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour told reporters in early 2012 that, “Our state ranks near the worst for children born to teen-aged girls and the data is emphatically clear that children born out of wedlock, with no father at home helping raise them, suffer dramatically higher levels of poverty, drug addition, incarceration, premature death. They have lower birth weights, worse infant mortality rates and smaller chances of finishing high school.” As an attempt to deal Mississippi’s teen pregnancy crisis, HB 999 was born.
Initially to many the passage of HB 999 seemed like a coup. In the state The PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life found to be the most religious it seemed like Mississippi was finally looking at sex-education and sex from a public health perspective rather than a Biblical one.
But HB 999 is sloppy. It has the cadence of a document hurriedly written and approved by exasperated staff just to get something – anything – out the door. One of the many problems with HB 999 is abstinence-only-until-marriage programs can also be approved as ab-plus if they modified the curriculum to mention contraception. As a result, truly comprehensive sex-education in Mississippi will have to be fought for district by district by parents paying attention.
Oxford is a relatively liberal Mississippi community. It is synonymous with Faulkner, literary festivals, has a vibrant arts scene and is home to ‘Ole Miss. That is why so many where shocked when the superintenednt and the school board approved Choosing the Best. Due to the glitch in the law, OSD was able to use Choosing the Best for both a middle school ab-only policy and as the ab-plus program for the highschool.
Through letters to the editor, the hightened news coverage, the efforts of Oxford parents and students, they forced a second reading and vote on OSD’s sex-ed policy. They were demanding comprehensive sex education their school district that averages 20 teen pregnancies per year. And, at the June 25 school board meeting – in a vote split down gender lines (three women for ab-plus, the two men against) – they won.