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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Crime of Teaching

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Because the machinery of law enforcement is so powerful, it’s extremely important that it not fall into the hands of ignorant people without any respect for the law.

During the civil rights era, brutal thugs holding important positions in law enforcement—local sheriffs, prosecutors and judges—routinely misused their powers to punish people acting lawfully instead of protecting them.

District Attorney Scott Southworth hasn’t threatened to turn fire hoses or unleash dogs on teachers in Juneau County, but he has threatened to prosecute them for sex crimes if they obey a new state law and attempt to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among schoolchildren.

Southworth doesn’t like the law passed by the state Legislature requiring school districts that offer sex education to provide factual information instead of just shouting at children: “For God’s sake, don’t ever do it!”

The new law moves away from the failed “abstinence-only” education of the Bush years. There is nothing wrong with encouraging abstinence, of course. Adults don’t want to think about their children having sex any more than children want to think about their parents doing it.

The problem is that parents throughout human history, despite their best efforts, have never, ever succeeded in preventing their children from learning about sex and developing a strong interest in it.

Educational research has compared the results of abstinence-only teaching to more comprehensive sex education that also includes information about using condoms and other methods to help prevent pregnancy and STDs. Research shows it makes very little difference whether young people received abstinence-only education or more comprehensive sex education when it comes to the likelihood of teenagers having sex.

However, there was one very frightening difference. Those whose educations were limited to encouraging abstinence were far less likely to use condoms and practice “safe sex” when they did begin having sex.

When children’s lives can be changed forever by teenage pregnancy and ended or drastically altered by disease in the age of AIDS, the only responsible position is to provide young people with as much factual information as possible about safe sexual practices.

That was why the Legislature passed the law requiring school districts that provide sex education to include accurate, age-appropriate information about birth control and the prevention of STDs.

Education Is the Antidote

Apparently, it’s not only teenagers who are in need of accurate information about sex.

District Attorney Southworth sent a letter to five school districts in his county demonstrating not only his woeful ignorance about sex education, but also about the law itself. That’s not a good quality in a district attorney.

Southworth threatened to charge teachers who follow the state law with contributing to the delinquency of minors.

“Forcing our schools to instruct children on how to utilize contraceptives encourages our children to engage in sexual behavior, whether as a victim or an offender,” Southworth wrote. “It is akin to teaching children about alcohol use, then instructing them on how to make mixed alcoholic drinks.”

The only real relationship between unsafe sexual practices and mixed drinks is that an increase in the latter can lead to an increase in the former.

It’s a lack of knowledge about the dangers of both alcohol abuse and unsafe sex that makes the teenage years perilous for young people. Education is the antidote.

Southworth seems to believe the only reason young people don’t engage in sex is they can’t figure out how to put on that darned condom. Once they learn in school where to put that thing, Katie, bar the door.

A district attorney should not be threatening to prosecute people for following the law. It’s the prosecutor’s job to charge people who violate the law.

Southworth, a Republican who calls himself an evangelical Christian, sounds like one of those self-righteous conservatives who complain about “big government” interfering in our personal lives. Yet he is threatening to use the power of his office to prosecute anyone who tries to educate young people on how to prevent pregnancy and STDs.

Using a condom or other forms of birth control is not a crime, no matter how old someone is. Under Southworth’s bizarre legal theory, Juneau County parents who responsibly provide birth control for their own sexually active children could be charged with sex crimes.

Obviously, such an absurd prosecution would have no legal standing. But the tragic side effect of Southworth’s threats could be to deny responsible sex education to children.

It’s no secret that timid school administrators are cowed by controversy. Many schools already abdicate their responsibility to provide sex education for fear of complaints from socially conservative parents.

Legal threats, even ridiculous ones, could cause more schools to drop sex education programs.

That wouldn’t do anything to reduce sex among teenagers. It would simply increase teenage pregnancy and sexual disease.

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