Wis. teachers, students mystified by sex education warning

DA threatens to jail educators over lessons

By Todd Richmond
Associated Press / April 11, 2010

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MAUSTON, Wis. — Mike Taake has taught sex education for 30 years, and he says he knows what doesn’t work: just telling students to wait.

The Mauston High School health teacher has used abstinence-only and comprehensive curriculums, and he said students need all the information they can get about sex to make the best choices. But teaching them about contraceptives could land him and other teachers in court.

Last month, Juneau County District Attorney Scott Southworth sent a letter to area school districts warning that health teachers who tell students how to put on a condom or take birth control pills could face criminal charges. The warning has left many teachers, school administrators, and parents flabbergasted.

“Seems like a step back in time,’’ Taake said of Southworth’s logic.

Southworth, a Republican and a Christian evangelical, took issue with a law that Governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat, signed in February requiring schools that teach sexual education to adopt a comprehensive approach.

Southworth warned that teaching a student how to properly use contraceptives would be contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor punishable by up to nine months behind bars and a $10,000 fine. He said it would be promoting sex among minors, who are not legally allowed to have sex in Wisconsin.

“It puts the school kind of in the middle between two sides, between the government and state telling us what should be taught and what people think should not be taught,’’ said Scott Lenz, a health teacher in the New Lisbon School District. He said he would teach contraceptive use if he got the approval of his school board.

Southworth said he doesn’t want to drag teachers into court but feels he was ethically responsible for warning them of the new law’s potential consequences. He urged the school districts to refrain from offering sex education courses until the Legislature repeals the law.

Southworth didn’t cite evidence in his letter showing that teaching someone to use contraceptives makes them more likely to have sex. But in an interview Thursday, he pointed to Milwaukee Public Schools, which teach a comprehensive sex education curriculum but still struggle with high teen pregnancy rates. Sex education specialists, however, say many social factors influence teens’ decisions to have sex, including lack of parental supervision and poverty.

Janine Geske, a Marquette University law professor and former state Supreme Court justice, said she didn’t understand Southworth’s legal logic. She said that if he tried to prosecute a teacher for adhering to guidelines approved by the Legislature and governor, the case would probably be dismissed.

In Wisconsin, children younger than 17 who have sex with each other can be prosecuted as juveniles. Seventeen-year-olds who have sex with each other can be convicted as adults of a misdemeanor.

Wisconsin schools aren’t required to teach sex education. But under the new law, which was backed by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, schools that do must teach a range of topics, including the benefits of abstinence, the proper use of contraceptives, how to make responsible decisions, and the criminal penalties for underage sex. Parents can choose to keep their children out of the classes.

Southworth says he is not trying to bolster his reputation as a social conservative for a potential run for higher office, but his stance has proved popular with antiabortion groups.

Matt Sande, the legislative director of Pro-Life Wisconsin, which opposes the new law, said every district attorney in Wisconsin should follow Southworth’s lead.

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