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CMS Student's Quest To Update Sex Ed Policy Collides With NC Abstinence Law

Myers Park High senior Fabiola Cruz talks to reporters after Thursday's meeting on the CMS sex education policy.

A Myers Park High School senior’s quest to make Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools sex education more relevant to teens won applause from school board members Thursday.  But those board members were told they were powerless to make the change. 

The current CMS policy on sex education requires that students be taught about the benefits of abstinence until marriage and avoiding out-of-wedlock pregnancy. A proposed revision that went before the board’s Policy Committee would have taken out the references to marriage. For instance, it calls for abstaining until adulthood and simply avoiding pregnancy.

Those changes came at the urging of Myers Park High senior Fabiola Cruz, who researched sex education for her graduation project. She concluded that such language isn’t relevant for a generation that’s postponing marriage or avoiding it altogether.

The Census Bureau reports that the median age for first marriages is now 28 for women and almost 30 for men, compared with their early 20s in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Even in the past decade, the age has been rising -- from 26.1 for women and 28.2 for men in 2010.

Myers Park High senior Fabiola Cruz

"To talk about waiting til marriage and keeping from premarital sexual activity, I don’t think teens are kind of listening to that anymore," Cruz said.

Cruz started talking to the Policy Committee in October. She argued that a more realistic approach could help students avoid unwanted pregnancy.

"They just don’t see the class as important because they don’t, like, connect with what’s being taught," she said.

The committee asked the School Health Advisory Council, which is made up of CMS and community representatives, to work with Cruz to draft the alternative wording.

Charles Jeter, a former state legislator who is now the CMS policy administrator, said he sympathizes. But he gave board members a copy of state law, which says that public schools shall teach abstinence outside of marriage "as the expected standard for all school-age children."

"'Shall' means we have no option," Jeter said.

It also prescribes that students be taught that the best long-term way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases is "a mutually faithful monogamous heterosexual relationship in the context of marriage."

"It would be my opinion that y’all can’t violate state law," Jeter told board members.

Board member Ruby Jones, a retired educator, said students introduce their own perspectives into classroom discussion.

"They’re going to bring that tension and 'Ooh, this is old as crap' type thinking to the table. So it’s going to come out," she said.    

Lenora Shipp, another retired educator who just joined the board, says she taught eighth grade health. She says the law made it hard to answer student questions candidly.

"There’s things being said in the classroom – I had some interesting things being said and questions being asked – but I had to stay within the context of 'I can’t go across this line,' " she said.

The committee voted to update CMS policy to reflect a new state mandate that students get age-appropriate lessons about sex trafficking. But it kept the language about marriage.

Jeter called Cruz’s work brilliant and said it reflects well on CMS.

"I know you’re not going to get the outcome you want but I think it goes to show students really can make a difference," he told Cruz, to board members' applause.

Cruz said afterward she’s disappointed but not surprised. Now she’s lobbying state legislators to change the law.

When Cruz graduates, she plans to attend American University and major in international relations -- with a minor in public policy.