In the spring of 2011, a rumor circulated through Vestavia Hills High School that a group of freshman girls got a sexual transmitted disease after attending a party with some seniors. It's unclear how many students were affected. Some students said they heard it was herpes or chlamydia, while the sex ed teacher said it was syphilis.
According to four students, the school quickly called an assembly. Students were segregated by gender. “The school called all the guys in to talk to us,” said a male student, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the topic. He was in ninth grade at the time and remembered being told about statutory rape and not to “hook up with a girl who’s passed out or asleep.”
“I can just remember that the school as a whole just avoided talking about condoms and sex in general,” said Lisa Shi, also a senior at the time. “So the easy way out was ‘don’t do anything.’” None of the girls remembered what was said in the assembly, though one said that she thought it was a joke.
The school did not respond to requests to comment on the rumor, the assembly or what sort of sex education was taught at the time. It currently employs the Sex and Family Education program, which advocates “abstinence as the accepted norm for unmarried persons.”
Many public high schools in Alabama hire outside organizations to teach sex education. Moyer and Kennedy said administrators say they are reluctant to adopt more comprehensive sexual health programs because they fear pushback from parents. So this year Moyer and Kennedy hired a polling company to survey 501 public school parents in two counties in Alabama.
Sixty-six percent of the respondents said they believe sex ed should be taught in school. Eighty-two percent said that students should be taught abstinence until marriage, but 79 percent said they want their child to be taught how to use a condom, and 84 percent said they want students to be instructed on birth control methods.
Ten years ago, when Dr. Keith Abrams’ eldest son first enrolled in the Alabama School of Fine Arts, a public 7–12 school in downtown Birmingham, Abrams approached the administration with an offer: He wanted to volunteer to teach sexual health. The school agreed.
His class there is taught for two days in eighth, 10th and 12th grades for 90 minutes each. The first day is mostly instruction, and he devotes the second day to student questions.
He believes that the Deep South’s high rates of sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancy, divorce and sexual abuse can be directly linked to the lack of sexual education.
“It's causality, not a correlation,” Abrams said. ”It is traceable to education. No one wants to get an STD.”
In the decade that he has been teaching sexual health, only two parents have requested that their kids be pulled out of his class.
“You hear so much about how so many college kids can’t write essays. They don’t have good study habits. They are so behind in math. Well, why not extend that to [sex education]?” said Brad Hill, the director of curriculum and instruction at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Citing the high incidence of sexual assault on college campuses across the country, he said, “Apparently high schools are not preparing them to be healthy sexually either.”
He and Will Marble, the health and wellness coordinator at the school, stress that their sexual health program should not be an outlier in Alabama. Marble said he has three young daughters and worries about their growing up in a world where sexual health education is uneven or nonexistent.
“Maybe we can do it because it’s right. You have to meet the students where they are,” he said.
Ali Simpson is in her first year of medical school and credits her high school education with setting her up for academic success.
“The education I had in middle school and high school, I honestly believe, prepared me for the real world,” she said. “I think if the school had taught me sex ed, that would have stuck with me too.”