Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
 
Fact in Brief

Sexuality and Abstinence Education Policies in U.S. Public School Districts


December 1999

GENERAL SEXUALITY EDUCATION POLICIES

•More than two-thirds (69%) of all school districts have a district-wide policy to teach sexuality education; nearly one-third (31%) leave policy decisions to individual schools or to teachers.

•Eighty-six percent of students live in districts that have a sexuality education policy, while 14% attend schools in districts that leave policy decisions to individual schools or to teachers.

•School districts in the Northeast are the most likely to have a district-wide policy to teach sexuality education (86%); Midwestern school districts are the most likely to leave policy decisions up to individual schools or teachers (41%). Districts in the South and West are near the national average.

•The prevalence of policies varies widely by subregion--for example, the South as a whole parallels the nation, but nearly all (99%) districts in the South Atlantic states have a policy, while a smaller proportion in the East South Central division have one (40%). The Northeast is more homogeneous; both its New England and Middle Atlantic divisions are more likely than the nation as a whole to have district-wide policies (88% and 85%, respectively).

POLICIES ON ABSTINENCE AND CONTRACEPTION

•When all districts are taken into account--including those without a sexuality education policy--10% of districts have a comprehensive policy that addresses abstinence in a broader educational program to prepare adolescents to become sexually healthy adults; 34% have an abstinence-plus policy tht treats abstinence as the preferred option, but permits discussion about the benefits of contraception; 23% have an abstinence-only policy that treats abstinence as the only option outside of marriage, with discussion of contraception either prohibited entirely or limited to its ineffectiveness in preventing pregnancy and disease; and 33% have no policy.

•Overall, 9% of students attend school in districts that have a comprehensive sexuality education policy, 45% are in districts with an abstinence-plus policy, 32% are in abstinence-only policy districts and 14% are in districts that have no policy.

•Among districts with a sexuality education policy, 14% have a comprehensive policy, 51% have an abstinence-plus policy and 35% have an abstinence-only policy. Accordingly, almost two-thirds (65%) of districts allow discussions of contraception as effective in preventing pregnancy and disease, while over one-third (35%) either prohibit or severely limit such discussion.

•Over half (55%) of districts with a sexuality policy in the South have an abstinence-only policy (20 percentage points higher than the national average), while only 20% of districts in the Northeast have such a policy (15 percentage points below the national average).

•Among subregions, the highest proportions of abstinence-only policies are in the South--the West South Central division (60%) and the South Atlantic subdivision (54%). The lowest proportions are in the Northeast and the West--New England (14%) and the Pacific states (20%), respectively.

CHANGES IN DISTRICT POLICY

•Fifty-three percent of district superintendents who know when their current district policy was adopted say that it was after 1995, 31% say that it was between 1990 and 1995, and 16% say that it was earlier.

•One-quarter (23%) of superintendents who know whether their current district policy had replaced an existing one say that it had done so, while three-quarters (77%) say that it had not.

•Half of the small proportion of superintendents who say that their current district policy had replaced a former policy say that the new policy fell within the same general category.

•Among districts with replacement policies, overall, there was no net change in the number of districts with abstinence-only policies (1% decline); the major shifts were away from comprehensive policies (37% decline) and toward abstinence-plus policies (22% increase).

FACTORS INFLUENCING POLICY

•One of three factors--state directives, recommendations of special school board advisory committees or task forces, or school board actions--are cited by at least three-quarters of superintendents as the single most important factor that influenced their district's current sexuality education policy (out of a possible 11 factors).

•Overall, about half (48%) of superintendents cite state directives as the most influential factor.

•Aside from state directives, school boards are more likely than other factors to be considered more influential by districts with an abstinence-only policy.

•Superintendents cite an average of nearly three factors that had influenced their current policy, with state directives the most frequently cited influential factor (74%).

•About half (53%) of superintendents say that the community at large is "generally silent" on the issue of their district's current sexuality education policy, 41% say that it "strongly supports" the policy, 5% say that it is divided and fewer than 1% say that the community is "generally opposed."

Results are based on a nationally representative sample survey of 825 U.S. public school districts conducted between May and October 1998, with an overall response rate of 68%. Respondents are superintendents (or their representatives) of public school districts that taught grade six or higher.

SOURCE: Landry DJ, Kaeser L and Richards CL, Abstinence promotion and the provision of information about contraception in public school district sexuality education policies, Family Planning Perspectives, 1999 31(6):280-286