State Politics

With HIV cases climbing, Florida Democrats push for responsible sex education in public schools


Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

With Florida leading the nation in new HIV infections, Democratic lawmakers say now more than ever the Legislature should do away with what's commonly referred to as "abstinence-only" sex education in the state's 4,300 public schools.

Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, and Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, are the leading sponsors of what they've dubbed the "Florida Healthy Adolescence Act" (SB 1056/HB 859).

The bill makes comprehensive sex education an option for districts -- which "doesn't force anything on school districts, on schools, on parents," Fullwood said. Those districts that do choose to offer it would have to provide medically accurate, factual and age-appropriate information to students.

Information covered by the umbrella of "human sexuality" education would include: family planning, pregnancy and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV and AIDS.

Bullard, a teacher for the past 16 years, said "students are going to do what students do," and adults need to give them the tools to make smart decisions, rather than promoting what he described as an outdated and naive policy.

"Let's just be honest with ourselves," he said. "We can no longer assume by saying the word 'abstinence' that people will automatically abstain. It doesn't happen in real life; it doesn't happen with adults. Why would we even assume it happens with teenagers?"

"A teen that understands the ramifications and the totality of what they're doing is going to be a better prepared adult," he said.

Both Bullard's and Fullwood's bills have been referred to the Senate and House education policy committees. But neither are expected to get a hearing in the Republican-led Legislature this session.

During their press conference Wednesday at the Capitol, Bullard and Fullwood referenced increasing HIV cases in Florida -- data which was detailed in a Herald/Times analysis this week.

HIV infections have risen each year since 2012 as they've declined across the country. Miami-Dade and Broward counties were Nos. 1 and 2 in the United States in new HIV infections in 2014 per 100,000 residents, according to state and federal data. The increase in cases came while Florida Gov. Rick Scottand Dr. John Armstrong, the state's top health officer, have imposed four years of personnel cuts in the Department of Health that have shrunk the size of county health departments.

"We can no longer afford, as a state, to stand behind and wait, hoping aspirationally that things are going to change by simply using outdated methods of educating our teens about their sexual behavior," Bullard said.

Fullwood said the legislation could also be called the "Reality Check Act."

"We're living in a world that doesn't exist as far as sex ed in our schools," he said. "Ideally, abstinence is the best policy, but it's not real. ... We have a population of kids who are practicing sex and we're just not being realistic enough to educate them."

Florida law requires public schools to "teach abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard for all school-age students while teaching the benefits of monogamous heterosexual marriage."

Bullard and Fullwood's legislation would repeal that, allowing schools the freedom to teach comprehensive sex education. Under the bills, parents could review a school's curriculum upon request and a student could be excused from a human sexuality lesson with a parent's written permission.

The legislation includes an anti-bullying provision, by requiring information that "encourages young people to practice healthy life skills," such as overcoming peer pressure and making good decisions "to avoid high-risk activities."

Cliff Myrtil, a Boynton Beach Community High School senior in Palm Beach County, said students "have the right to accurate information," so they can make good decisions.

"Florida just can't afford not to educate our young people about how to protect their health," he said.