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OWL program gives parents another option for sex education

"Don't have sex, 'cause you will get pregnant, and die."

That line might have been used for comedic effect by a dramatic gym teacher in the movie Mean Girls, but the joke isn't that far off. 

Sex education in schools has been the subject of debate for quite some time, but there may be an alternative for parents who don't think their kids get all the information they need when girls and boys split up for those middle school puberty talks.

The Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is in the midst of the seventh- through ninth-grade curriculum for OWL, which stands for Our Whole Lives. The program was developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ in 1999, but isn't religiously based.

OWL provides age-appropriate sex education for kindergarten through 12th grade. Each teacher goes through a background check and gets training on how to teach the curriculum.

Younger kids learn about things like basic hygiene, personal space and what different types of families look like. Older kids delve deeper into anatomy, different types of contraception, family planning, healthy relationships and gender identity. OWL teachers are often there to answer questions kids and their parents don't feel comfortable discussing.

"I think some parents are scared that if they talk about sex, their kids are going to go out and have sex, and I don't think that's true," said Ilana Morgan, a DUUF member and the OWL program coordinator. "I think when kids ask us for information about the world and we don't answer, we leave this layer of fear around them and they don't know how to make good choices."

DUUF has been offering the OWL program off and on for a number of years. Before kids can attend classes, parents must go to a mandatory orientation. There, they talk about their own experiences with sex education classes.

Rosemary Candelario, a DUUF member prepping to teach the 10th- through 12th-grade OWL class, said her Catholic upbringing led to a "mixed bag" when it came to sex education. She added that she got lucky by having a few "cool" nuns in her school.

"One day, everyone was passing around a dirty book," Candelario said. "The nun read a page, turned bright red and said, 'OK, let's talk about it.' The way that she handled that still makes an impression on me today."

Before moving to Texas, Candelario taught sex education programs in Boston, but said the country as a whole is still lacking when it comes to educating young people about sex.

"State by state, and even community by community, you have different resources," she said. "Even in a more liberal state, sex education was always dependent on outside programs like OWL."

Morgan's son, Gabriel, is currently a freshman in high school and took the seventh- through ninth-grade OWL course last year. He said the sex education he got in school was lacking.

"They taught about sexually transmitted diseases, abstinence and puberty, but it was all very brief," he said. "I think it kind of leaves a lot of stuff out. It makes a lot of assumptions about what you know — they assume you already know about sex, and the education is a skeleton of a real education."

According to a recent study from the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, 58.3 percent of public school districts taught only abstinence in sex education classes during the 2015-16 school year, down from 94 percent eight years ago. On the opposite end of the spectrum, 25.1 percent of districts offer no sex education, eclipsing the 2.3 percent in 2007.

Most local districts follow the state mandate of promoting abstinence from sexual activity as "the preferred choice of behavior in relationship to all sexual activity for unmarried persons of school age," according to Texas health objectives.

That lack of information could lead to health problems. Data from the Denton County Health Department said the rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis cases have been on the rise since 2013. The majority of new diagnoses were in the 15-to-24 age group.

Though the OWL curriculum says abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to avoid STDs or pregnancy, it goes over the different forms of contraception and what resources are available to those who do become pregnant, including steps for proper prenatal care.

"There are a few lessons that are about the basics of sex education, but that's such a small part of the class," Morgan said.

The program explores issues like body image, bullying and what constitutes consent when it comes to sexual acts. Participants are also encouraged to learn about different sexualities, gender identities and what healthy relationships look like.

"I think one valuable asset the OWL program gave me was when they had a panel of LGBTQ people who shared their experiences," Gabriel Morgan said. "I got to match a person with an idea and a greater concept."

OWL organizers say they hope the program has a short-term effect on the number of STDs in the area, but they also see a long-term benefit in connecting with individual youths in the community.

"It's like planting a seed, but you don't always get to see it grow," Candelario said. "You have to just trust knowing what you say resonates with someone. We're planting seeds for a life of healthy decision-making."

To learn more about DUUF's OWL program, email info@dentonuuf.org or call 940-566-1286.

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.