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Abstinence educators in D.C. schools are trying to peddle an alternative to condoms and the Pill: self-esteem.

Photographs by Charles Steck

Each day, about a dozen teenagers descend on a brick house a couple of blocks from the Benning Road Metro stop in Southeast. The students come in search of help with their homework, an evening snack, or just a place to hang out.

Helena Valentine is there every day to field the various questions and gripes of these Ward 7 kids. As program administrator of Catholic Charities’ Teen Life Choices (TLC) programs, Valentine, along with her staff of five, has a lot to say about the most common teen problems. If a student wants to drop out of school, she explains why education is important. If a student is caught up in violence, she offers tips on anger management. And if a student is having family problems, she’s ready to listen.

“We want to give them hope, help them to dream about a future,” Valentine says.

But if the student wants to talk about sex or contraception, Valentine cuts the discussion short. “No, there’s absolutely no discussion of condoms. This is a total abstinence program. If it’s mentioned, we say there’s no such thing as safe sex.”

The gospel of abstinence education, as articulated by Valentine, has been limited in D.C. to after-school programs such as TLC and a pilot program for small groups of elementary-schoolers.

Recently, however, the ideology of abstinence education has sneaked into D.C. classrooms through the schoolhouse’s back door. Thanks to a $2.3 million federal grant over three years secured by the city’s Department of Health in July, teachers in several junior high schools this month plan to kick off a curriculum emphasizing saving sex until marriage. Federal provisions for the new classes follow the “abstinence-only” format—that is, they prohibit discussion of birth control, except in the context of failure rates. Existing sex-ed classes in D.C. schools will continue addressing birth control.

Over the next three years, the Department of Health plans to phase in abstinence courses in each of the city’s nine junior high and 11 middle schools. The new program, moreover, isn’t just funding just-say-no classes in school. It also establishes abstinence “program sites” in each of D.C.’s eight wards—to be run by the D.C. Black Churches Initiative (DCBCI) in Wards 1, 2, 3, and 4, and TLC in Wards 5, 6, 7, and 8. The city’s Department of Human Services will bring the message to the children of indigent families. Finally, the program will attempt to sell teenagers on “secondary virginity.”

Abstinence, a brainchild of Congress’ right wing, is a strange fit for the District, which is one of the country’s most liberal jurisdictions. In referendum after referendum, D.C. voters have affirmed this inclination, batting down death-penalty proposals and OK’ing medical-marijuana initiatives.

The voters, however, never got a chance to vote on an abstinence curriculum. Neither the D.C. Board of Education nor the D.C. Council deliberated on this departure from school policy. Instead, the change came at the behest of Health Department officials who have been working for the past five years on a fledgling abstinence curriculum, also with the help of federal grants.

Tony Bullock, press secretary for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, seemed surprised when informed of the program: “You just said that the Department of Health received a grant for abstinence only?” After making clear that the mayor’s office still supported comprehensive sex education, he added, “We’ll take all the help we can get.”

Bullock got that right. Teen pregnancy rates are sky-high in the District, despite a recent headline-making drop that experts are having trouble accounting for. The longstanding sex-ed curriculum in D.C. public schools hasn’t had much success in training kids to take the proper precautions before they act on their impulses. “I think sex is a good thing,” says a 17-year-old now pregnant with her second child, adding that abstinence education sounds “kinda dumb.”

Before shrugging off the city’s abstinence program, D.C. students should consider its prescription for a common teenage scourge: pimples.

Yes, the program has a set of tips dedicated to the ravages of acne: “Wash your hands frequently and keep them away from your face. If you use hair sprays, oil sheens, hair oils, or gels, try to keep them away from your face.”

The connection between a clear complexion and sexual restraint may not be immediately obvious. According to the school system’s abstinence teacher’s manual, however, “Acne can have a negative effect on a teen’s body image and self-esteem.”

And raising the self-esteem of D.C. children is a cornerstone of the city’s “I’m Worth the Wait” abstinence curriculum. The program offers not only a pedagogical road map, but also promotional tools such as T-shirts and pens bearing the slogans “I’m Worth the Wait,” “It’s Never Too Late for Abstinence,” and “Virgin Is Not a Dirty Word.”

The program consists of three modules: “Personal Growth” emphasizes self-esteem; “Interpersonal Skills” tackles topics such as “What’s in a Friend” and “Infatuation vs. Love”; and “Sexuality” covers “The Nature of Arousal,” “Staying Abstinent,” and “The Physical and Emotional Consequences of Premarital Sex.” The final lesson, “100 Ways,” asks kids to brainstorm a list of 100 “alternatives to having premarital sex” or “ways to express love without having sex,” which are to be written down and assembled as a classroom collage.

Like any scheme that aims to influence behavior, the curriculum sketches a few worst-case scenarios for students to ponder. For example, “Who’s Responsible?” is the story of 15-year-old Stacy, who feels pressured by her 16-year-old boyfriend, Andre, to have sex. Upon discovering that her good friend Keisha is already “going all the way” with her boyfriend, and failing to find an opportune time to seek her mother’s advice, Stacy gives in. Two months later, she’s pregnant. Andre ditches her, and she develops toxemia, which forces her to drop out of school. After reading the story, students are asked to “rank, in order, who they feel is responsible for the outcome” and then in groups “explore

the abstinence alternative and examine the outcome for Stacy.”

If Stacy’s troubles don’t make students think twice, the new curriculum has other activities to accomplish the same goal. In the “Dice Game,” students roll a die 10 times and, depending on which number lands facing up, are handed an envelope in which is a message headlined “Sex Bugs,” “Broken Hearts,” or “Lucky This Time,” or a picture of a baby. The lesson plan explains that the game “will be demonstrating the consequences of sexual intercourse prior to marriage while using condoms or other ineffective methods of birth control.” Each roll of the die symbolizes one year of sexual activity.

The Department of Health has been working on the program since 1998, with the help of federal grants authorized under Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution. In the 1996 welfare-reform legislation, conservative Republicans created an abstinence-only entitlement program under Title V of the Social Security Act. The program established mandatory federal spending for abstinence-only education at a level of $50 million annually for five years. That money was to be distributed to state health departments in proportion to the number of children living in poverty in each state. The controversial guidelines for these grants include an 8-point definition of what constitutes abstinence-only education penned by the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, a conservative advocate of social programs to promote marriage. To date, only California has refused to accept the grant money, though many states have tried to gut the conservative intent of the grant by funding tangential programs such as media campaigns.

D.C.’s curriculum derives several of its core concepts—including the distinction between “infatuation” and “love” and the diagram of the “progression of feelings that may lead to sexual intercourse”—from abstinence programs across the country, as well as from the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, a Sioux Falls, S.D.-based nonprofit that plays a lead role in feeding abstinence concepts and slogans to educators nationwide. (The national organization also takes the position that masturbation is wrong; the D.C. curriculum appears to take no stance on this issue.) Prior to debuting this year in D.C. middle schools, the model was tested on elementary-school students at a handful of public and charter schools, as well as on Georgetown University freshmen in training to be dorm monitors.

“The younger kids really enjoy this program,” says Margaret Copemann, the Health Department’s abstinence education project manager, who works from an office in Shaed Elementary School. “The new grant will allow us to do outreach to 13- to 18-year-olds, as well.”

District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Superintendent Paul Vance welcomed the abstinence curriculum into the schools with a letter stating, “The abstinence education classes…in our schools and public charters [will] provide children and young adults information that will inform their decisions and encourage them to make better choices.”

Although Vance’s letter, in support of the Health Department’s grant application, pledged to provide support for the program in the form of rooms and access to students in all junior-high and middle schools, there’s been no public debate or discussion of how well these programs work.

“Are they running these programs in my public schools?” asks Tommy Wells, Board of Education representative for Wards 5 and 6. “I certainly wouldn’t want to rely on abstinence as a public health intervention.”

On Monday mornings, the third-graders in Ms. Wilson’s class at Shaed Elementary School meet with Copemann for abstinence class. “Good morning, Ms. Copemann. How are you today?” the class greets Copemann.

Copemann begins one class by passing out bright purple “Abstinence” T-shirts to the students, who are seated in a circle on the carpet. “I want you to wear your T-shirts proudly,” she says. All the students put on their T-shirts.

“Do you remember what we talked about last week? What does ‘abstinence’ mean? Who remembers? It’s not to…what?” asks Copemann.

There a few giggles. Then, one student ventures: “Not to have sex.”

“Until when?” Copemann asks.

“Eighteen?” one child guesses.

“Twenty-three?” says another.

“In this program,” Copemann informs them, “we talk about remaining abstinent until you get married.

“When you look in the mirror, do you like what you see? Do you like what you see?” she continues. The students are asked to draw a picture of how they see themselves on one side of a sheet of paper, how they think others see them on the opposite side. A few are asked to present their pictures to the class. They talk about what they dream of becoming when they grow up: a singer, a basketball star, a teacher, a wrestler.

“What does self-esteem have to do with not engaging in early sexual activity?” Copemann asks.

In some educators’ hands, abstinence education steers away from mentioning sex, but Copemann’s approach is proactive, bringing up the subject early on.

“How many of your parents tell you they don’t want you to have a baby early?” Copemann asks. Nearly all of the hands in room shoot up.

“How many of you know a teenage parent?” she asks. Just over half of the students raise their hands.

Copemann then shows a video on personal hygiene, including tips about brushing your teeth frequently, eating right, and wearing deodorant. Afterward, she asks, “Do you see a connection between abstinence and what we’re teaching you?”

The final topic of the lesson is the emotional consequences of premarital sex. “There’s something that can’t be protected,” Copemann says. “Do you know what a broken heart is?”

The message Copemann conveys to the pupils at Shaed is noble, though the long-term results are yet to be measured. To date, no long-term studies have shown abstinence education to be effective in reducing the rate of teen sexual activity, though advocates offer anecdotal stories about the small-scale success of particular programs and the kids seem to enjoy the classes. “No research has demonstrated that abs-only is effective. But it has been the trend for funding,” says Jennifer Bissell, of the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Whatever the record of abstinence-only programs, the District’s other efforts to prevent teen pregnancy have been dismal. Nearly one in eight teens becomes pregnant each year in D.C. The teen birth rate for the District—87 births per 1,000 girls—is much higher than the national average—51 per 1,000—according to statistics released in February by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

The problem crowds the corridors of many D.C. high schools. “I thought I was going to be the only one in high school pregnant,” says one 17-year-old. “But there were tons of girls pregnant. The only ones who weren’t were the 12th-graders, because they had to fit into their prom dresses.”

Yet prevention efforts are underfunded compared with services after the fact. According to a June 2002 study by the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a consortium of local organizations, “for every dollar the District government spends on the consequences of teen pregnancy, it spends less than one penny on prevention.” The study calculated that the District’s Department of Human Services spends $747.3 million annually on public-assistance programs to support families begun by teens, while allocating just $6 million for teen-pregnancy-prevention programs this year.

Policy wonks may obsess over outlays on teen-pregnancy prevention, but at least some of the blame for the District’s population of young moms rests with the schools’ sex-ed program.

In comparison with its suburbs, the District has an aggressive sex-ed and family-planning blueprint for its schoolchildren. DCPS began allowing school nurses to distribute condoms in 1992. The move attracted a flurry of media attention, applause from HIV/AIDS-prevention workers, outrage from conservatives, and a series of hotly contested hearings held by the Board of Education. District teachers, furthermore, are allowed to unroll condoms in the classroom.

The hands-on approach to contraception is part of a curriculum mandated under D.C. municipal regulations to teach sex ed each year from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and to cover topics including contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and rape prevention. Montgomery County teachers, by contrast, are now battling for the condom-unrolling privilege. In Fairfax County, teachers can’t even discuss contraception and can refer to sex only in the context of marriage.

But after fighting for sexual candor in the classroom, the D.C. school system has apparently moved on to other battles. At present, there is no official on the DCPS payroll charged with overseeing the sex-ed curriculum, a position known as the “content specialist for health and physical education.” Barrington Salmon, communications officer for DCPS, was unable to specify who is running the program when asked.

And to judge from students’ reactions, there’s a big gap between what D.C. teachers may impart and what they actually do impart.

“[Sex ed] wasn’t helpful to me at all,” says one current 11th-grader. “And they didn’t even tell the girls they can…get pregnant from pre-come.”

“I have a friend who still thinks you can’t get AIDS from unprotected oral sex, because a teacher once told him that,” says another young man, now 21.

One 10th-grader, who is gay, says his sex-ed class skipped a lot of topics relevant to both gay and straight students. “Oral sex? They didn’t even go there,” he says.

Donna Schiller, a social worker at Howard D. Woodson High School’s health clinic, often gives students who ask about contraception a quiz on the steps involved in using condoms. She reports that many students can’t define the terms “erection” and “withdrawal,” and only about two out of maybe 100 students have ever passed the quiz. “I say to them, ‘And you have time to think for this quiz. What are you going to do when you’re in a hurry, when you’re having sex?’” says Schiller.

Schiller constantly finds herself fighting the most ignorant birth-control myths that go uncorrected in the classroom. “Oh, the girls tell each other things like ‘Standing up or douching right after you have sex can stop a pregnancy,’” she says.

Jennifer Raggins, health coordinator for DCPS, defends the sex-ed curriculum. “Anything taught in the schools has to meet standards, whether it’s English or health class,” says Raggins.

Bissell wonders just what those standards are: “In D.C., comprehensive sex ed is mandated, but there’s no system to hold schools accountable. There’s no one monitoring what each school teaches. There’s not even evidence that there’s a curriculum being utilized,” she says. “It’s been an ongoing struggle for us to get information from the school system.”

The law requires that all textbooks used for instruction in human sexuality and reproduction be submitted annually for approval by the Board of Education. Wells says no annual review materials have ever passed his desk.

Class material is also required to be available for parental inspection, but Brenda Rhodes Miller, executive director of the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, says she’s had little luck extracting information about sex-ed textbooks and syllabuses from DCPS. “You shouldn’t have to be a reporter to find out what your child is or isn’t being taught in middle school,” she says.

Abstinence educators have a reassuring message for kids who take the plunge: We’re not giving up on you.

For those who don’t adhere to the abstinence faith on their first go-round, educators have pioneered the concept of “secondary virginity.” Under this appeal, sexually experienced youth are encouraged to renounce further sexual activity until marriage.

“To young women who’ve had sex or even had babies,” Copemann says, “we’d like to say, ‘Just because you’ve been sexually active in the past doesn’t mean you have to be now.’” One of the program’s slogans is “It’s Never Too Late for Abstinence.”

The Department of Human Services will receive $250,000 each year to test such slogans on at least 400 kids whose families are enrolled in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Agency Director Carolyn Colvin’s letter endorsing the Health Department’s grant application listed among its goals “a significant decrease in the number of TANF teen parents who have repeat pregnancies because they commit to abstinence.”

The invitation to secondary virginity is certainly a friendlier approach than scorning nonvirgins as sinners, but will it work to change behavior?

Loral Patchen, director of the Washington Hospital Center’s Teen Alliance for Prepared Parenting (TAPP), thinks abstinence education might help young people who aren’t sexually active remain so. But she doubts it will change the behavior of those who are already active: “The idea that you’re going to tell anyone who’s already sexually active to abstain usually isn’t realistic. It isn’t realistic for adults or for kids.”

Ana Carcamo, 17, is one of the young mothers who come to Upper Cardozo Heath Clinic, a TAPP program site, for OB-GYN services and parenting classes. When her son, Alexander, was born a year ago, Ana transferred from Woodrow Wilson Senior High School to Bell Multicultural High School because Bell offered day care.

“Abstinence classes seems a little silly. It’s not like your parents or your teachers aren’t having sex,” says Ana. Nodding at Alexander, she adds, “I’m going to tell him that sex is OK, but you should protect yourself.”

Patchen says the most important way to support teen mothers is to provide day care for their kids. “A lot of youth end up not being able to complete school because they can’t find child care. It increases the likelihood of a repeat pregnancy.”

Repeat pregnancies are a big part of the picture for the District. “Thirty-one percent of teen births in our community are repeat pregnancies,” Patchen says.

Dr. Dana Best, medical director of Healthy Generations, a secondary-pregnancy-prevention program that also provides primary care for the children of teen parents at Children’s National Medical Center, says, “You’re doing a real disservice to those young people if you don’t give them what you know will work.

“The data has not shown abstinence-only programs to work. I stress hormonal birth control and condoms at every opportunity.”

The trend toward increasing funding for abstinence-only programs one day might make it harder for programs like Best’s, which use a comprehensive approach to pregnancy prevention, to compete for grant money. “We are grant-funded,” Best says. “Our costs are not covered through our Medicaid billing. Our population is very needy—they don’t have money to pay for these services.”

Twenty-year-old Xiomora Flores recalls that her mother resisted speaking to her about sex. She was “shy,” says Flores, and “thought talking about sex was dirty.”

When Flores had her first period, she told her mom, who seemed too embarrassed to explain it. Flores stopped asking her parents about sex after that.

And school sex education didn’t do much to fill in the blanks about navigating this new territory. “They talked about hormones, I think, but not about birth control. There was nothing about how to use a condom,” she says. “Or where to go the morning after.”

Flores got pregnant at the beginning of her senior year at Wilson. Determined to finish school, she kept her grades up and graduated seven months pregnant with Kelsey Briana, now 1. “I was big on graduation day,” she says, patting her belly.

She’s now on the wait list for a day-care program; she wants to go to the University of the District of Columbia to become a social worker or a nurse.

Flores doesn’t complain about having to stay up late when Kelsey Briana is sick, but her voice trembles when talking about feeling dismissed by people—whether strangers on the bus or family members—who assume she’s going to fail. “Why are they looking down on me like I’m gonna be nothing? Some people [in my family] didn’t even come to see the baby.”

Fortunately, Flores gets support from other young mothers and the staff at TAPP’s Upper Cardozo site. “TAPP is a sisterhood. We all try to help each other out,” she says. “Everybody’s in the same situation here. We’ve all been pregnant and been scared, and now we’re moms, trying to be good moms.”

Looking back, Flores says she wishes her parents had talked to her about sex. She thinks school programs should be more thorough in what they teach about birth control. “There are a lot of new things girls can use now, like there’s a [birth-control] patch and a shot. They should teach girls how to use them.”

Does she wish her school had offered abstinence classes? “Those are classes about not having sex?” she asks. “Oh, but what about if you are?”

Nearly all advocates agree that parental communication is the best pregnancy-prevention strategy. But not all parents feel comfortable talking about sex with their children, and vice versa.

Melva Williams, health educator with Florence Crittenton’s comprehensive life-skills and sex-education “SNEAKERS” program, one of the local nonprofit’s many educational programs for girls and young women, says that kids in her program come to her with things they’d like to ask their parents about, but can’t: “They want to talk to their parents about sex and ask them questions the way they can ask us. They really do. But I think most fear being judged if they ask questions. Like if a girl asked her mom, ‘Does it hurt the first time you have sex?’ most parents would say, ‘Why do you want to know? Are you out there having sex?’ And that shuts kids down.”

At best, abstinence classes can give kids a caring mentor, like TLC’s Valentine. However, like many parents, abstinence counselors can’t go all the way when it comes to discussing sex. Kids like Barrington, 13, a regular at TLC, don’t really focus on the program’s abstinence message. “I like it. They help me with my homework,” he says.

Aside from clamming up on touchy topics, abstinence teaching runs the risk of giving safe sex a bad rap. “If you’re telling them that it’s not an option to have sex and be safe, then many will do just the opposite because they want to be rebellious,” says Nicholle Awkard, a 2000 Wilson graduate, who has worked on pregnancy prevention since she was 16. “[Abstinence education] could steer young people away from the idea that safe sex is important.”

At the abstinence program sites in Wards 1, 2, 3, and 4, the DCBCI’s president, the Rev. Anthony Evans, says he’s planning to solicit “virginity pledges” from youth participants. The pledge strategy has been shown to delay the onset of sexual activity for about a year, according to a 2001 study commissioned by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and published in the American Journal of Sociology. However, the approach also greatly increases the likelihood that participating youth will not use contraception when they do become sexually active, according to the same study.

Of course, all the talk about the program’s impact assumes that the children will actually listen to their teachers. An equally likely scenario is that students will find the lessons on self-esteem just as captivating as algebra and American history. Erica, for example, is 15 and first had sex when she was 13. The idea of abstinence education hardly makes her raise an eyebrow. “Sounds boring,” she says. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.