Louisiana has the seventh highest rate of teen pregnancies in the U.S. among kids aged 15-19. Half of all new STD diagnoses in the U.S. are among young people — Louisiana leads the U.S. in rates of gonorrhea and syphilis, and it has the second-highest rate of chlamydia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A bill from state Sen. Yvonne Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, would allow the state's departments of health and education to administer an anonymous survey to school districts to gauge risk behaviors among high school students. The CDC survey already is administered in 42 other states. In Louisiana, the survey omits questions about sexual activity but does ask about drug and alcohol use, among other behaviors. Colomb's Senate Bill 85
would allow those questions on the survey.
Proponents argued that with access to the full scope of risk behavior data among young people, the state could apply for more funding for programming to accurately reflect student behavior and help lower the state's high rates of STDs and unplanned pregnancies. A similar bill won House approval last year, and Colomb's bill cleared the Senate's Health and Welfare Committee last week.
But after pushback from conservative opponents, the bill failed by a vote of 14-22
during Senate debate May 16. The bill is scheduled for reconsideration in the Senate May 17
The bill faced strong opposition from conservative lawmakers, including state Sen. John Milkovich, D-Shreveport, who said the measure "gives statutory authority to the state of Louisiana to quiz your children and grandchildren about their private lives and sexual conduct." Milkovich called the survey "an assault on innocence" and "emotionally damaging" and "confusing."
State Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, said getting appropriate sex ed programming to high school students is "the last catch basin before they graduate" and move away from home where they're likely to not receive any sex ed. (Bishop also is sponsoring a bill that would allow colleges to add sex ed into campus orientation.)
Currently, the state adheres to abstinence-based sex ed, though schools can participate in comprehensive programs that discuss disease prevention, contraception and birth control, stress management and other health concerns using a trauma-informed approach. Colomb's bill won't necessarily influence how Louisiana does sex ed, but it would give programs a better and more accurate picture of the state of student health.
"This bill is not about sex education in Louisiana," said state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge. But, he said, "if you can't measure it, you can't improve upon it."
State Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, said New Orleans and Baton Rouge seem to be "running the race as far as who’s first in terms of HIV and AIDS."
Following Milkovich's objection to the "opt-out" provision in the bill, Barrow introduced an amendment that would make it "opt-in" instead, meaning parents would have to give their children permission to participate in the survey rather than simply remove them from the process. Milkovich continued to object. "Still, the agenda is to subject our kids to this," he said.
"The figures in our districts show us we’re not making any progress," said state Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette "We do nothing? That’s not one of the options."
State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, challenged Milkovich, who argued that the bill could make kids question their "beliefs and principles."
"We lead the nation in STDs and teenage pregnancies. What we’re doing right now doesn’t work," Morrell said. "If we’re getting abstract data for this problem, why is it getting progressively worse?
Morrell also had a message to legislators opposing the bill on grounds of "big government" intrusion.
"Surprise: you are the government," Morrell said. "This is about collecting data so we know best how to create programming ... If we don't have data to present a plan to help our kids fight these problems, then what are we really doing?"