The S.C. Department of Education quietly spiked a federal grant application in August, thereby rejecting potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars that the state has relied on for more than 20 years to help fight the spread of HIV among youths in South Carolina, home to the nation’s ninth-highest rate of AIDS.
The grant opportunity, administered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, targets states based on level of need. According to the CDC, South Carolina’s 13,917 HIV cases and rate of 360.7 cases per 100,000 people, as of 2009, qualified South Carolina among the states in dire need of the support.
But according to a former Education Department employee who worked on the grant application for months before being ordered to shelve it, the administration of Republican Superintendent of Education Mick Zais has never embraced South Carolina’s Comprehensive Health Education Act, which says students should be taught evidence-based, research-proven safe sex strategies — such as condom use — in addition to learning that abstinence is the only surefire way to protect oneself against sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies.
“I was told during the whole writing of the grant process that Dr. Zais really believed in abstinence only and that he did not believe ... in the Comprehensive Health Education Act and therefore any going after a grant to help support its implementation would be seen by him as support for a law that he didn’t believe in,” says Lynn Hammond, who served as the Education Department’s point person for the CDC’s five-year HIV grants from 2001 until this fall.
For more than 20 years, South Carolina has applied the CDC funding toward training teachers on comprehensive sex education instruction.
Zais was elected superintendent in 2010; he announced last week that he will not seek re-election. Hammond says she had been informed of Zais’ predisposition toward abstinence-only sex education early in his administration’s tenure, but was also told that because Zais had not run for election on that issue, he would not try to implement it.
Top department officials “understood that they had responsibility for implementation of current law,” Hammond says.
Nobody ever said directly that Zais’ abstinence-only stance was the reason for forgoing the CDC grant. Instead, Hammond says, a deputy director told her it was up to her whether she wanted to continue working on the grant. Never mind that she had been ordered to rewrite the application several times already, scrubbing language deemed worrisome by her superiors.
“I knew at that moment that they weren’t going to let us apply, but I looked at our team and said, ‘OK guys, they want us to make the decision and I say no, we put it back on them, because we need to walk out of here with our heads held high [knowing] we did our jobs,’” Hammond says.
She finished the application and sent it back upstairs, but the department officially advised against its submission to CDC because the grant required a state-level advisory committee.
“I’m like, OK, but we’ve had one for 20-something years,” Hammond says.
Asked this week about the CDC grant application being shot down, Education Department spokesman Dino Teppara said, “Some requirements of this federally funded grant are clearly at odds with the requirements of South Carolina’s Comprehensive Health Education Act. Local school boards have the power to choose instructional materials dealing with sex education, and districts must emphasize abstinence as required under state law.”
But Hammond disagrees: “The grant is not at odds with the language of the CHEA,” she says. “Dino is stating facts about the law — local school boards have power to choose materials and districts must emphasize abstinence — but the grant requirements would not violate those two things he listed. In fact, the grant would have provided funds to help districts and schools implement the CHEA. This grant would have also provided funds for districts to select and implement effective curricula and materials that promote abstinence from sexual risk behavior.”
A basic tenet of CDC policy, as laid out by the White House in 2010, is that the information given out by schools should be “grounded in the benefits of abstinence and delaying or limiting sexual activity,” but also providing reliable information to those youths who are sexually active.
It’s not just Hammond who is concerned about the department spiking the grant.
On Aug. 13, Dr. Deborah Billings wrote to Zais on behalf of the State Alliance for Adolescent Sexual Health, asking the department how it intended to “fill the void that has been created by not pursuing this important CDC funding.”
On Sept. 30, Zais issued a vague reply, saying his department would “continue to provide appropriate professional development activities focused on developing teacher competencies in providing students with scientific understanding of reproductive health issues, including STD risk reduction.”
Forrest Alton, CEO at the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, says it’s important that sex education not suffer in the absence of the federal money.
“What we know is that for the past 10 years those resources have come from the federal level,” Alton says. “Now that we don’t have those federal resources, I’m unclear how that support is being provided.”
Susan Fulmer, co-chair for the South Carolina HIV Planning Council, says she was surprised to learn of the Zais administration’s decision.
“In all the years [the grant has] been applied for and awarded, there have been very positive outcomes and not a lot of controversy, other than the fact that sex education is controversial in and of itself,” Fulmer says.
She adds: “I don’t know how much of that was pressure from conservatives or pressure from folks who believe that abstinence should be the only message. Obviously, we’ve got a law that says otherwise.”
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