I am glad to see the teacher in the Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District, who had a student present a sex education demonstration with a cucumber and a condom, has been allowed to resume teaching. At issue was whether the teacher had violated House Bill 999, which reads in part, “The instruction or program (sex education) may include a discussion on condoms or contraceptives, but only if that discussion includes a factual presentation of the risks and failure rates of those contraceptives. In no case shall the instruction or program include any demonstration of how condoms or other contraceptives are applied.” Although it is not likely the teacher or the student intended to violate the law, the wording of the bill makes it clear that sex education demonstrations such as the one conducted in Starkville are forbidden.
The purpose of those particular words in the bill is to protect innocent students from graphic displays of sexually arousing lewdness and the psychological damage that would surely follow. Of course, I am sure in this particular situation the psychological impact was about as devastating to the classroom full of high school juniors as it was to the cucumber. I am not saying the teacher should not have been reprimanded for violating the law although the Mississippi Legislature habitually violates the law when it comes to funding education without fear of reprimand, but suspending her for a week may have been a bit much in this particular case. Such a suspension is especially troubling when you consider there is a strong probability the teacher may have never heard of House Bill 999 prior to her rendezvous with the cucumber. However, there are those who will argue that ignorance of the law is not an excuse, and in most cases, that may be true, unless the law happens to be flawed as is the case with HB 999? For example, isn’t using sex education in schools to prevent teenage pregnancy, but not allowing any form of demonstration of how condoms or other contraceptives are applied, a little absurd? That is about as sane as teaching skydivers to survive jumping out of airplanes without first demonstrating how to correctly put on a parachute and demonstrate how it works? Let’s not beat around the bush, if we are going to make any headway with kids today about such issues as teen pregnancy, it is time to stop believing in chastity belts and move out of the dark ages.
Although I am not convinced schools are the best place to teach sex education in the first place, I do agree it is the easiest venue in which to capture the targeted audience. However, the issue is not really sex education. My issue is why do lawmakers, not only in Mississippi but across the nation, continue to force schools to do the job of mamas and daddies? Why do lawmakers and the general public continue to scream about the shortcomings of public schools, yet expect public schools to take responsibility for society’s problems and work miracle cures for those problems? Why can’t teachers concentrate on the jobs they were trained to do, and leave delicate family matters to the mamas and daddies, health department, or even the church? Or maybe, if state legislators want sex education taught in the public schools, they should consider volunteering to teach it in their home districts?
The teacher in Starkville was not a vile lecherous person. She did not have an evil agenda to corrupt young minds. Through the presentations, she was working with her students to apply the research, writing, and communication skills she had taught them; the sex education demonstration was simply a byproduct of her doing her job. I doubt seriously, outside of maybe a one time professional development or a reminder in a faculty meeting, that she had any knowledge of HB 999 much less any real training as a sex education teacher.
Maybe, the teacher should have screened the presentations and demonstrations prior to class. Maybe, she did, and not knowing about HB 999, she thought the demonstration was acceptable for 16 and 17 year old high school students. Or, maybe, the student made a last minute change to the demonstration without her knowledge hoping for a better grade. Regardless of what happened, it is probably not fair to blame anyone or anything with the exception of a well-intended but flawed bill. The student was after the best grade possible, the teacher was doing her job, the Legislature originally passed the bill with the intent to help an escalating problem, teen pregnancy, and the school administration felt they had no choice but to suspend the teacher from the classroom until they could investigate the matter. All of these had merit, so what went wrong?
The law itself is the culprit! Any law that abdicates parental responsibilities and places those responsibilities elsewhere, such as in the laps of schools, is flawed. Schools naturally take on the role of parents for many students, but to legally burden teachers with responsibilities that rightfully belong to parents is wrong even if it is the easiest and cheapest way to go about addressing issues. Also, if legislators insist on passing such bills as HB 999, they should at least give teachers permission to address the issues in a straight forward manner free of the archaic taboos that help feed the problem in the first place. If not, all that is being accomplished is the likely hood of chasing good teachers out of the profession.
Although the teacher in Starkville was reinstated to teach and hopefully exonerated of any wrong doing, she will most likely carry the scars of her traumatic and humiliating ordeal for the rest of her life. I truly hate that for her, but at the same time, I applaud her for actively engaging her students in the assignment. She could have just as easily played it safe and assigned them worksheets like they received during the week of her absence, or she could have given them the old “sit and git” routine of lecture and classroom busy work assignments. However, she chose to make a difference by actively engaging her students in learning. I just hope her run-in with a cucumber in a rubber overcoat doesn’t make a good teacher reconsider her career choice.
©Jack Linton, PhD November 22, 2015