Pittsburgh Public Schools administrators last night proposed moving from an "abstinence-only" sex education curriculum to a "comprehensive" curriculum that would include discussion of abstinence, contraception and alternative lifestyles.
The school board will be asked to vote on the change Feb. 24. At the board's Education Committee meeting yesterday, administrators said the change would bring the district in line with comprehensive, or "abstinence-plus," sex education curricula in other urban districts, including New York and Washington, D.C.
Even with a curriculum change, officials said, the district would continue to stress abstinence as the only sure way to avoid unplanned pregnancy and sexual diseases. No contraceptives would be distributed; nor would contraceptive use be demonstrated.
The district has been studying a curriculum change for nearly a year. A parents group has been urging the district to adopt a comprehensive approach, and school board member Mark Brentley Sr. asked whether political pressure played a role in the administration's recommendation.
"This is a serious matter," he said.
Jerri Lippert, executive director of curriculum, instruction and professional development, and Frances Doyle, senior program officer, said data show the need for change.
They said 14 percent of births in Pittsburgh, compared to 8.3 percent across Allegheny County, were to mothers under 20 last year. They said 24 percent of African-American births in the city last year were to mothers under 19.
The administrators also cited alarming national statistics about sexual disease rates and said various studies have shown that comprehensive sex education programs can help to delay the onset of sexual intercourse.
Nationwide, however, proponents of abstinence-only and comprehensive programs each dismiss the other side's approach as ineffective and risky for curious teenagers.
While Pittsburgh officially has an abstinence-only policy, instruction varies from school to school.
"Right now, our teachers are on their own," said board member Heather Arnet, who supports a comprehensive program and believes the board should reassert control over the content of sex education.
Dr. Lippert said a comprehensive program is non-judgmental and more inclusive.
A change in sex education would be folded into the new health curriculum planned for students in kindergarten through grade 12.
Joe Smydo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1548.