Amid a national debate over how much schools should teach students about sex, a parent-led group has begun circulating an Internet petition to force an overhaul of the Pittsburgh Public Schools' abstinence-based sex-education curriculum.
The group is pushing for what's commonly called "comprehensive" sex education. That would mean shifting from a curriculum that urges abstinence before marriage and offers few details about sex to a curriculum that potentially would discuss abstinence, contraceptive use and sexual practices.
"Kids have questions [like] 'What's oral sex?' " said Squirrel Hill parent Terri Klein, who posted the petition last month. In the current curriculum, she said, oral sex isn't explained.
About 230 people have signed the petition so far.
"In Pittsburgh Public Schools, teens aren't receiving the information they need to make healthy and responsible life decisions," reads the petition at www.ipetitions.com/petition/pghhealthed.
The petition calls abstinence programs ineffective, touching on one of the flash points in the sex-education debate.
Nationally, proponents of abstinence-based and comprehensive sex education tout the success of their respective approaches while accusing the other's of failing to curb teen sex. Each side cites studies to back up its case.
When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week suggested that one in four teenage girls has a sexually transmitted disease, abstinence advocates blamed the comprehensive sex-education movement. When the government in December announced the first increase in the teen birth rate since 1991, the camps blamed each other for the setback.
About 75 percent of students nationwide receive comprehensive sex education at school, according to the National Abstinence Education Association in Washington, D.C.
The state Department of Education couldn't provide a breakdown of how many districts used either approach. State regulations require classroom discussion of HIV and AIDS -- parents may choose to have their children excused from those sessions -- but districts otherwise are free to teach sex education as they please.
In Pittsburgh, about 15 students, parents and residents appeared at a Pittsburgh school board hearing last spring to urge a more detailed curriculum, and the district later said it would form a task force to study changes. The task force hasn't been formed, a delay that prompted Ms. Klein to post the petition.
The district said it still plans to review the health and physical education curriculum, which includes sex education, but officials haven't committed to abandoning the abstinence focus that they have said reflects the city's conservative mindset.
While contraception isn't discussed by teachers, guest speakers from social service agencies sometimes address the issue, with parents deciding whether to let their children attend those sessions.
Jean Fink, a school board member since 1976, said she couldn't remember a time when the district offered anything other than an abstinence-based program. She said abstinence is still an important message but believes it might be appropriate to better educate students about STDs.
When the district formed "wellness clinics" with local hospitals in the 1980s, some parents worried contraceptives would be handed out. That didn't happen, Mrs. Fink said. She said she believes a shift to comprehensive sex education would "stir everything all up again."
Andrew Moore, 17, a senior at Pittsburgh Brashear High School in Beechview, said his sex-education classes were too vague to be helpful and noted that some students think sex "is just vaginal intercourse."
The petition criticizes the current curriculum for associating "fear and shame" with premarital sex and for acknowledging only a heterosexual, married lifestyle.
"This exclusion of all other families stigmatizes single-parent families, gay and lesbian teens, the children of gay and lesbian parents, and other families," the petition reads. "As a public institution, Pittsburgh Public Schools should support all families and students."
Advocates for Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based group that promotes comprehensive sex education, says abstinence-based programs offer little to the majority of teens who studies show are already sexually active.
"I understand parents' desire to help kids avoid big mistakes. ... But the only way you can do that is if you empower them with education and information and talk to them about your values," said Debra Hauser, executive vice president of Advocates for Youth.
Valerie Huber, executive director of the abstinence association, said comprehensive programs downplay abstinence because they assume most youths will be sexually active. She said abstinence programs may include a discussion of contraception but "always in the context of why abstinence is the best choice."
Politics and religion inflame the debate. Advocates for Youth claims the federal government has spent millions of dollars on abstinence programs to further the agenda of conservative congressmen and evangelical Christians.
In May, the abstinence association lamented a federal report that documented what advocates called an "offensive" level of detail in some comprehensive programs.
The study found one program has teachers and students pretending to be sex partners during a discussion of condom use. Another program suggests students wear hats or sunglasses to avoid embarrassment while buying condoms.
Joe Smydo can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1548.