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Despite bad science and religious content, Austin LifeGuard’s sex education program remains popular in some districts

MahurinPointing_Thumb1_1757.jpg
MahurinPointing_Thumb1_1757.jpg

Despite faulty science and misleading characterizations of sex, a sex education program delivered by an Austin crisis pregnancy center remains in use in 13 Texas school districts.

Austin LifeGuard — the education arm of Austin LifeCare, a Christian faith-based nonprofit CPC operator — offers four-hour “abstinence-based comprehensive” presentations for middle and high school students. The program has something of a checkered reputation since 2009, when the Austin Chronicle highlighted the program’s flaws and a study of sex education in Texas by the watchdog organization Texas Freedom Network found holes in the curriculum when referring to STDs.

David Wiley, a professor of health education at Texas State University and co-author of the TFN report, says the Austin LifeGuard curriculum generally casts sexual activity before marriage in a negative light, exaggerates the failure rates of contraception and discusses STDs but not how to get tested.

“There is clearly a lot of obfuscating, dodging of words, manipulating statistics, and use of nuanced semantics,” said Wiley, a former president of the American School Health Association. “It is essentially political posturing.”

According to the TFN report, the curriculum’s flaws include:

  • ALG incorrectly tells students that “condoms provide little to no benefit in preventing the spread of HPV.”
  • The curriculum states, “there were only two STD’s before 1960,” when in fact there were only two STDs commonly tested for before the 1960s, though there were plenty of others out there.
  • When discussing failure rates of condoms, ALG fails to point out that operator error is the most common reason for failure, not faulty condoms.
  • An ominous reference to “post-abortion effects,” without specifying what those may be.

‘A health issue’

Pam Cobern, executive director of Austin LifeCare, dismissed the criticisms of the ALG program. “This is a health issue, not a political issue, and not even a religious issue,” she said.

“We talk about abstinence but also about contraception, which not everyone does,” Cobern said. “We show them the condom box and let them read it. We try to help them make their own case for abstinence, we feel kids are intelligent enough to make the right choice when given all the information.”

Around the time LifeGuard came under criticism in 2009, the Austin Independent School District developed a review process for its outside sex education speakers and ended its relationship with ALG.

That happened for a few reasons, said AISD’s School Health Coordinator Tracy Lunoff, chief among them the medical inaccuracies and lack of evidence-based information in the LifeGuard program. Lunoff said AISD heard concerns about ALG’s religious and faith-based content.

Today, three organizations work with the district to offer supplementary sex education, including the City of Austin’s Maternal and Child Health Department and Planned Parenthood.

But even when aware of LifeGuard’s medical inaccuracies, some school districts have not rid themselves of the flawed curriculum. That’s the case in Liberty Hill Independent School District, 30 miles northwest of Austin.

The district’s School Health Advisory Committee (SHAC) recently reexamined the ALG presentation against other sex ed programs and opted for a different one, but Liberty Hill ISD curriculum director Claudeane Braun said they plan to keep ALG in the mix as supplemental instruction.

Braun said the SHAC is aware of the bad science in LifeGuard’s presentation — including “skewed” numbers regarding condom failure rates and “overstating” the negative consequences of sex, she said.

“When we went over the curriculum carefully, we felt like it didn’t go far enough in informing our students,” Braun said. “It skirted around some of the important issues and the dangers of having sex with multiple partners. Their program numbers look inflated over some of the others, but we didn’t think anything was too far off base.”

The district maintains its relationship with ALG because students respond well to the program’s speakers, who tend to be relatively young and relatable, she said. “We are a conservative, Church-based community,” said Braun. “The pastor of one of our largest churches is on our SHAC.”

“What’s really important to us is just making sure the kids listen and respond,” she said.

Lax oversight, uninvolved communities

The Texas Independent previously reported on Austin LifeCare’s violations for mingling religious and educational materials, and found the state-funded nonprofit’s leaders made overt references to Christianity during an informational training session.

CPC reviews are typically pre-announced and conducted by the state contractor in charge with running the program. Oversight over Texas’ sex education curriculum is lax as well.

Evaluations rest with the SHACs, composed of concerned parents with little to no training on how to evaluate health curricula, said the TFN report co-author Wiley — but he found that most districts don’t even bother consulting with the community groups. Some 81 percent of districts were unable to produce any formal SHAC recommendation on sex education, bypassing a Texas law requiring input on sex education from the SHACs.

Monica Rodriguez, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Center of the United States (SIECUS), says Austin LifeGuard’s factual holes are in keeping with a national trend among CPC-backed sex-ed programs.

“Most often crisis pregnancy centers teach abstinence-only until marriage, and when they do attempt some sort of sexual education, more often than not, what they do is leave out critical information,” she said.

According to the TFN study, more than 95 percent of Texas public school districts teach abstinence-only or nothing at all when it comes to sex education. Texas receives more federal dollars for abstinence-based sex education than any other state.

In conjunction with Gov. Rick Perry, the Department of State Health Services opted out of applying for $4.4 million from the federally administered State Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP), which helps finance evidence-based sex education — both abstinence and contraception — to prevent teen pregnancy, the Texas Tribune reported in 2010.

Meanwhile, Texas did apply for $5.4 million in federal funding for abstinence-only education. But the federal pot for abstinence-based funding has dwindled, Rodriguez said, leaving the majority of CPC sex-ed programs, like LifeGuard, to rely on private funds. (ALC director Cobern agrees: since Community-Based Abstinence Education funding was cut last year, she said they’ve been getting by on donations.)

That’s a trend that further decreases oversight on the curriculum, Rodriguez said. It’s up to school districts, parents and students to “step up efforts and hold these groups accountable” for medical inaccuracies and mistruths, she said.

“It’s critical for local advocates to play a role. It’s incumbent upon them to make sure these program are medically accurate, not biased toward a particular philosophy and are rounded in adolescent reality, rather than the reality some adults operate under­,” she said.

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