A recent Pew poll found that Mississippi is the most religious state in the union; it also has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation and faces staggering poverty. As a means to address the teen pregnancy issue the Mississippi Legislature passed HB 999 mandating – for the first time in the state’s history – that sex ed be taught in public schools.
This project proposes to profile two communities in Mississippi, Oxford and Jackson, as they navigate the controversial waters of fulfilling the state’s new mandate. Through my research and writing I have determined these two communities provide a broad cross section of cultural, political and unique insight into what one Oxford resident called “the religion problem” when dealing with sex-ed.
I will look at both sides of the issue, for and against comprehensive sex education, trace the questionable committee put together by conservatives to approve curricula and through public records requests (some which have already been fulfilled) and FOIA’s to the Department of Health And Human Services, track the funding and the questionable committee assembled by the Mississippi Department of Education to approve abstinence only and abstinence plus curricula.
The US has spent over 1.5 billion on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs since the Reagan years. However, most of that funding was secured and distributed by George W. Bush’s office of Faith Based Initiatives. This opened the door for ideologically driven organizations to receive millions in federal aid. According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, virginity pledges–a staple of abstinence-only programming–not only failed to decrease teen STD rates, but actually resulted in pledge-takers avoiding medical attention once infected, leading to increased chances of transmission. Study after study, including the in depth Waxman Report of 2004, has proved ab-only ineffective in reducing teen pregnancy; whereas comprehensive sex-ed has been shown to bring down STDs and teen pregnancy.
So why is there a backlash against HB 999? What role has and will religion play in how sex education will be taught in Mississippi? Who are the policymakers, administrators and local activists integral to the process of a curriculum selection? Why is understanding those people and their religious beliefs important to Mississippi and to the nation? How does their faith and religious experience inform their civic decisions? Will Mississippi be able to reckon its religious past with the practical needs of its present?
Mississippi, with the highest teen birth rate in the nation, is poised to finally do something about it. With the passage of HB 999 the state now requires school districts choose an abstinence-only-until-marriage, or a more comprehensive ‘abstinence plus” sex-ed policy to be implemented beginning this fall.
As a former teen mother, this is a project and subject I am very passionate about. As a former Southerner – living five years in Louisiana – I am connected to the South and love it in the way that only people who lived there understand. I have experienced its deep religious underpinnings and how it has shaped an entire region’s identity.
This project would be the culmination of almost three years of covering abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and tracking the taxpayer funding of religious organizations through George W. Bush’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives. Both programs approved for abstinence only and abstinence plus (WAIT Training and Choosing the Best) have received millions in federal aid.)
My hope is my Mississippi investigation will lead to a book project – don’t all writers hope that? – that looks at the history of abstinence only (and similar Healthy Marriage and Compassion Capital federal grants) which have shaped the way we talk about sex, homosexuality, marriage, gender stereotyping and who owns “family values” in our political discussions and policymaking today.
In the short term, I want this project to generate discussion around religion and sex-ed in Mississippi. I want to shed light on how comprehensive sex education could lead to a lowered teen pregnancy and therefore, a lower poverty rate and the positive role churches can play in this public health and moral battle.
I just returned from a reporting trip to Oxford where the school board and the community were engaged in a battle over ab-only vs. ab-plus. I talked with many parents, students, school board members and people in cafes and bookstores. They all had opinions on sex ed in Oxford school district – most in favor of it.
But it was my talk with a 55-year-old African American grandma named Ilean that really brought it home for me. Raised Pentecostal, she found a home at New Hope Baptist Church in Oxford. She told me they were teaching kids about sex and contraceptives “in the church basement,” because “you know they are having sex some of them and we gotta help protect them.”
She continued after our long conversation over breakfast, wagging her finger at me, “we need to teach these kids how to not have babies, we have to teach them in school because they aren’t getting it at home.”
She said to me, of my reporting and investigating, “Keep doing what you’re doing, come back to Oxford,” waved her hand seemingly over the state, “we are having too many babies having babies.”
But it was something else she said that struck me, something so subtle yet so powerful, “I think why not teach them sex-ed and about condoms in school? And you know what? While we’re at it we should let them pray in school too!” Here was a devout Baptist telling me she was for school prayer and teaching kids how to use condoms in public schools. There must be hope for Mississippi.
As an investigative journalist, covering Mississippi’s battle – both religious and political – for comprehensive sexual education is a humbling challenge.