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Healthy Youth Act: A Bittersweet Victory for North Carolina's Teens

Sarah Preston,
ACLU of North Carolina
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July 15, 2009

On June 30, North Carolina Governor Beverly Purdue signed the Healthy Youth Act into law, mandating comprehensive sex ed in public schools for the first time in more than 13 years.

Since 1995, the law required North Carolina public schools to teach abstinence-until-marriage as part of the “healthy living curricula” in grades seven through nine. Concerned about what teens were actually being taught, in 2005-2006, the ACLU of North Carolina and North Carolina NARAL conducted a survey and discovered that at least 25 percent of districts were using curricula featuring medically inaccurate information, gender bias, and discriminatory language towards LGBTQ students.

In 2008, the ACLU-NC decided it was time to focus on statewide legislation and we became one of the founding members of the Healthy Youth NC coalition, demanding more for students and parents in North Carolina. The coalition, which also includes Planned Parenthood of North Carolina, NC NARAL, Equality NC, the Pediatric Society, Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign, and many others, drafted the Healthy Youth Act in an effort to get comprehensive sexuality health education into every public school in the state.

The act took many twists and turns through the legislature. In the end, the bill that passed represents a compromise: mandating that all students receive the currently required abstinence-until-marriage curricula as well as a comprehensive curricula that teaches the effectiveness and risks of all FDA-approved forms of contraceptives. This new curricula was re-named “reproductive health and safety education.” Some senators believed that this was the best way to get as many students as possible the information that they need to make healthy decisions. The coalition pushed back, explaining that having children sit through what is ostensibly an abstinence-only curricula before receiving the comprehensive information undermines young people’s faith in that information. The final bill also did nothing to alleviate the gender bias and discrimination in abstinence-until-marriage curricula.

While the Healthy Youth NC coalition celebrates the amazing progress we have made in just one year, we also look forward to the work that we have left before us to get truly life-saving information in the best form possible to NC’s youth. For 13 years, many of NC’s young people have received inaccurate information in a context that engendered fear and used shame to discourage sexual activity instead of providing information and educating young people about healthy relationships and healthy decision-making.

Starting in the 2010 school year, that will no longer be the case, as the new law will demand that the entire “reproductive health and safety education” program be objective and based upon scientific research that is peer reviewed and accepted by professionals and credentialed experts in the field of sexual health education. Our ability to get this much change in a year makes us optimistic that through implementation of the Healthy Youth Act and possible legislative amendments in the 2011 session, we can make clear that the program must be medically accurate and that “reproductive health and safety education” should not leave LGBTQ students or families out in the cold, as abstinence-until-marriage did.

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