Volunteer questions sex education policy

By Clay Wilson

Joey Balog says that once as he was manning the Southern Crescent Sexual Assault Center's crisis line, a teen-age girl called in with a horrific story.

The girl had been sexually assaulted, and didn't want to have the baby that resulted. Not knowing what else to do, she took a friend's advice to wrap herself in a blanket and beat herself in the stomach.

The method worked. Eventually, the girl's guilt prompted her to call the Sexual Assault Center for help. But by that time it was too late, Balog said.

Had the girl been exposed to the center's sexual assault awareness program in school, he said, she might have called the crisis line the night of the assault and been advised to go to a hospital. Workers there could have told her about emergency contraception to prevent conception, thus preventing the "do-it-yourself" abortion.

"She would have known that there were options," Balog said.

The girl didn't know about the Southern Crescent Sexual Assault Center because the Jonesboro-based group does not take its educational programs into Henry County schools.

According to Bernadette Highway, education director for the Sexual Assault Center, the center presented its middle school bullying and sexual awareness program and high school sexual assault awareness program to the Henry County Human Sexuality Advisory Committee in 2000.

The committee reviews all programs dealing with sex education proposed for use in Henry schools, said school system Superintendent Jack Parish. The group is composed of educators, parents, students and health professionals.

When the center presented its programs, Highway said, the committee "basically felt that the abstinence-based program was sufficient for the kids and they didn't feel that they needed the (additional programs)."

Balog, who has volunteered with the Sexual Assault Center for two years, contends that restricting sex education information to an abstinence-based curriculum is harmful to students.

"I feel like abstinence is probably the best way to prevent pregnancy (but) it isn't a complete program," he said. "It doesn't cover all the bases. It doesn't include sexual assault."

However, Highway said she thinks the issue has gotten confused when it comes to the center's awareness programs.

"Because the crime that is committed is sexually based, we do get grouped with sex education, when really we're more of a crime prevention program," she said.

The center does present programs in Clayton County schools. That system's spokesman, Jerry Jackson, said the system has an "abstinence-based" policy, and that any group wishing to make sex-education-related presentations must have them approved by the coordinator of health and physical education.

Highway said the center had gotten the approval of the Clayton County Board of Education several years ago, and does not have to present its programs (as long as they stay the same) for approval again.

She said she "absolutely thinks that it's extremely important" to grant students access to sexual assault awareness programs. She cited statistics showing that individuals between the ages of 16 to 24 are three times as likely to be sexually assaulted as members of any other age group.

And on the local level, on the Southern Crescent Sexual Assault Awareness' crisis line, "a vast majority of those cases are teen-agers," Highway said.

She said the center has not formally re-approached Henry County Schools since 2000. However, group representatives have held conversations with system teachers, she said.

Parish said the group would be free to present its programs to the Sexuality Advisory Committee again if it so desires.

He referred specific questions about the system's sexual education policy to Science Coordinator Terri George. George was unavailable Friday.

Balog, for one, wishes the Henry school system would reconsider letting the Sexual Assault Center present its programs.

"Knowledge and information protects and empowers," he said.