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Miss. sex education bill faces deadline next week

Some lawmakers are hoping a proposal to develop a sex education program for Mississippi’s public schools survives this session.

A bill filed by Rep. Alyce Clarke awaits consideration in the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it faces a Tuesday deadline. A similar Senate measure died earlier this session.

The House bill would allow the state Board of Education and the state Board of Health to create a sex education pilot program aimed at reducing Mississippi’s teen pregnancy rate. The bill, which must clear a Senate committee by Tuesday, authorized “age appropriate” courses in two school districts that would be selected by the state Department of Education.

Supporters of the bill said the need for such a program was underscored by a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released in January. The CDC said Mississippi’s teen birth rate was the highest in the country, more than 60 percent higher than the national average in 2006.

Clarke, a Democrat from Jackson, said if the state doesn’t take steps to stem the growing teen pregnancy rate, “it won’t be done.”

Clarke once worked as a nutrition specialist for Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Services and said she noticed the problem more than 20 years ago as more young teenagers applied for federal assistance.

Opposition to the bill has come from conservative lawmakers who say discussions about sex should be handled at home, not in the classroom. Before it left the House, the bill had been changed to include a provision that abortion would not be taught as a means of preventing a child’s birth.

The bill passed the Senate Education Committee by a close vote.

Sen. Lee Yancey, a Republican from Brandon who voted against the proposal Tuesday in the committee, said he’s aware of the need for young people to be better informed about sex and its consequences. However, he’s opposed to schools teaching children how to use contraceptives.

“What everybody’s afraid to say is what method would they use to demonstrate how to use a prophylactic?” Yancey said. “Is that something an eighth-grader or sixth-grader needs to see?”

The bill specifies that boys and girls would have to be taken into separate rooms during the discussions about pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and other issues. A report would be given to lawmakers by December 31, 2011 about the results of the pilot program.

Sen. David Jordan, a Democrat from Greenwood and a former biology teacher, said parents could choose to keep their children from participating in the program. He said it would be “a tragedy” if the proposal died this session.

The bill is House Bill 234.