Sex education expansion measure set for first hearing

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DENVER -- A proposal aimed at pushing Colorado school districts to implement a comprehensive sexual education curriculum is set for its first hearing at the Capitol Thursday afternoon.

House Bill 1081, sponsored by Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, would enable districts to use federal dollars to implement a uniform sexual education program.

"Right now, we have a patchwork approach to sex education in the state; and some districts do not teach it whatsoever," Duran told FOX31 Denver Wednesday.

"We want to make sure we teach abstinence in the classroom, but also to make sure that teens who do engage in sexual activity have tools to protect themselves. An abstinence only approach simply does not work."

One Republican certain to oppose the legislation is Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, who authored an abstinence-based sex education curriculum for her former employer, Focus on the Family, that's been translated into more than a dozen languages.

"We've already had comprehensive health [education] in this state. What we've allowed is local control," Stephens told FOX31 Denver. "Colorado's teen pregnancy rate is much lower than many states and that's because we've used a variety of messages to engage with youth on this topic.

Colorado's teen pregnancy rate, 33 pregnancies per 1000 teens, is just below the national average.

Inside Denver's West High School, Denver Health operates one of 15 School Based Health Centers that offer teenagers treatment and counseling on all health matters, including their sex lives.

"By the time they get to us at high school, they're already active, they're already at-risk," said Kari Kuka, who oversees the school clinics for Denver Health.

The clinics can help students treat any sexually transmitted disease, but they're not able to do as much as Kuka would like to help them prevent one.

"We can't provide birth control, we can only guide students to places where they can get it," she said. "And we can talk to them, encourage them to talk to their parents, inform them about the consequences of their actions."

Unfortunately, in many cases, by the time a student walks into the clinic with an STD, it's too late. Thus, Denver Health and Planned Parenthood are supporting H.B. 1081 in hopes that it will result in Colorado teenagers learning about sex and the consequences of their choices earlier.

"The data shows that the more information these students get, the longer they wait to engage in high-risk behaviors," Kuka said.

But what Kuka terms a "straightforward, science-based" sexual education course is, to Stephens and many conservatives, a "radical" approach.

"I don't know that this bill is needed. I think it's a federal grant bill," Stephens said. "And I think it's an attempt to cut some risk-avoidance messages.

"It's one thing to provide information -- here are pamphlets, here's information -- it's another thing to instruct. And this bill moves in a radical direction."

According to Duran, if the bill is adopted, it will include a provision that would enable any parent who doesn't want their student to receive the sex education instruction to opt out.

"We are teaching young people how to have the tools to protect themselves and have a healthy lifestyle," Duran said.

Duran pushed back at the idea that her goal is to end abstinence-based sex education.

"We will continue to encourage teenagers to abstain from sexual activity, and we want to make it very clear that there are consequences to their decisions, dangerous consequences when they make these decisions under the influence of drugs and alcohol."

Kuka also said that, in Denver Health campus clinics, abstinence is always encouraged.

She likened the approach to sexual education as that of a parent sending their child off on a hike.

"When you're sending your kids on a hike, you tell them to stay on the trail and hope they stay on the trail," she said. "But you also give them all of the information they need to survive just in case they go off the trail.

"Comprehensive sex ed is the same. We advise them to stay on the trail, but we have to give them all the information just in case they go off the trail."