Alaska students want more sex ed

Student governments pass resolution asking for mandatory, comprehensive course

Posted: Wednesday, April 29, 2009

News flash: Alaska high schoolers are interested in sex - or at least learning more about it.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The Alaska Association of Student Governments overwhelmingly passed a resolution during their spring conference in Sitka two weeks ago asking for "a mandatory, comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate nine-week sex education course" for all high school students statewide.

"Comprehensive" in this context is the label used in contrast to "abstinence only" varieties of sex education, which some religious or politically conservative parents tend to favor. Because of that and other underlying controversies on the topic, the resolution's authors were unsure of how it would be received.

Co-author Makenzie Curtis-Johnson, a 17-year-old junior at West Anchorage High School and occasional Planned Parenthood volunteer, said she was surprised when she found out her peers across the state showed such strong support.

"I wasn't quite sure it would work, whether we could actually write a decent (resolution). But then it got started and everyone involved got really interested," she said. "When you think about the subject, it's a controversial thing. And when you think of teenagers, you don't necessarily think they'd want to add mandatory subjects to their schedules, but they think it's important and that's really admirable."

The resolution, on which some 225 students representatives from 20 Alaska high schools discussed at the meeting, ticks off 19 different reasons for mandating sex ed courses, including evidence of abstinence only programs' ineffectiveness, the public cost of teens bearing children and Alaska's position as No. 1 in the country for per capita cases of the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia.

The other author, junior Sam McNelly of South Anchorage High School, said friends have razzed her for making sex ed a priority.

"It's in general, all the kids, they need to have this. They have no idea. Some of my friends, they say, 'Sam, this is ridiculous. You can't make us do this.' I say, 'Well, I see where you're coming from. But I think it's an important health issue that we don't have information on. Alaska has such high rankings in all STDs, it's an important issue and we're not doing anything to address it.'"

Sex education is handled differently from school district to school district. In Anchorage, there's no requirement at all, Curtis-Johnson and McNelly said.

"The main point is, Alaska as a state doesn't have a standardized sex ed curriculum, period," McNelly said. "We deserve to know. If our parents don't want to tell us, that's OK, but it's our lives. We need to make the choices."

Curtis-Johnson continued the thought.

"The more information you have, the better. I've never seen information as a hurtful thing. It helps you make better choices. The choices are still there whether you have the information or not."

Copies of the resolution are on their way to state legislators, the State Board of Education & Early Development and Anchorage municipal and education officials.

It's a welcome recommendation, Juneau-Douglas High School junior Jacob Hope said.

"I think that could be useful, tell kids what they need to do before they experience it," the 17-year-old said while hanging out with his girlfriend after school.

How's Juneau compare?

What the Alaska Association of Student Governments is advocating isn't far off from what's already being taught in Juneau. High schoolers here have a mandatory one semester health class that includes a five-week unit on sex education, said JDHS health teacher Nancy Seamount. Most students take it their freshman year.

The unit covers a lot more than just the biological mechanics of human reproduction and the associated risks.

"It's sad to me when sexuality is presented only as preventing STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and pregnancy. That's so shallow," Seamount said.

Seamount's lessons also cover a suite of concepts that could just as easily be found in a marriage counseling session, such as personal communication skills, emotional intimacy, dating and distinguishing love from infatuation.

Parents are sent a letter outlining every lesson in the unit and can opt their children out of any of them. It's structured so that abstinence is reinforced throughout the unit, with potentially objectionable pieces on contraceptives and preventing STDs grouped into two specific lessons.

Seamount has been teaching the class for 19 years and said each year one or two students are pulled out of the lessons that deviate from the abstinence only message. She could recall only one student who was pulled out of the entire unit.

If she had nine weeks for the unit, Seamount said there'd be a lot more work on relationship building.

"You've got to think way beyond stopping STDs and pregnancy," she said.

• Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail

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