tion, given that nearly 95 percent of all youth ages 5–17 years are enrolled in primary and secondary schools (Department of Education, 2000). To a large extent, policies regarding sex education and condom availability in schools are determined by state mandates and by policies established within local school districts. As a result, the specific content of sex education and condom availability programs varies substantially across school districts. In general, sex education curricula fall into two broad categories: those that teach an abstinence-only message, and those with a comprehensive message. Abstinence-only programs teach abstinence outside of marriage as the only option, with discussions of contraception either entirely prohibited or limited to its shortcomings. In contrast, comprehensive sex education programs provide information about abstinence in the context of a broader sexuality education program, and they also may make condoms available to students. Also included under the rubric of programs with a comprehensive sexual health and education message are “abstinence-plus” programs that teach abstinence as the preferred option for adolescents, but also permit discussion of contraception, pregnancy, and disease prevention (Kaiser Family Foundation, 1999b).

Decisions regarding the content of sex education curricula and whether or not to make condoms available at schools have been the focus of considerable debate and controversy. Proponents of abstinence-only policies argue that providing information about contraception or providing condoms to adolescents sends a mixed message to youth and may promote sexual activity (e.g., accelerating the onset of sexual intercourse and increasing the frequency of sexual intercourse or number of sexual partners) (Kaiser Family Foundation, 1999b). Proponents of comprehensive programs argue that while abstinence should be encouraged until youth are emotionally and physically ready for sex, it is crucial to provide youth who may be sexually active with information and contraceptive methods that can protect them from STDs and unintended pregnancy (Kaiser Family Foundation, 1999b).

Studies reviewing the scientific literature, as well as expert panels that have studied this issue, have concluded that comprehensive sex and HIV/AIDS education programs14 and condom availability programs can be effective in reducing high-risk sexual behaviors among adolescents


In a comprehensive review of school-based sex education programs, Kirby (2000) concludes that nearly all evaluations of sex and AIDS education programs demonstrate some socially desirable outcome, such as an increase in knowledge. Furthermore, some studies have provided scientifically credible evidence of reductions in risky sexual behavior. However, other studies did not demonstrate such impacts on behavior. The author identified 10 characteristics of programs that may distinguish effective programs from ineffective ones.

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