Elevate Difference

The Education of Shelby Knox: Sex, Lies & Education

Good Southern Baptist girls pledge abstinence until marriage; rarely do they take on the school board in a battle for comprehensive sex education. Shelby Knox did both-and made national headlines in the process. The Education of Shelby Knox: Sex, Lies & Education, chronicles both Knox’s fight for information and her own questioning of her religious upbringing. As she struggles to push the school board of Lubbock, Texas to go beyond its abstinence-only sex education policy, she also challenges the narrow views her church has taught her. It’s an honest, compelling story that opened the doors for a national dialogue about what teens are-or aren’t-being taught about sex, and the consequences. Knox’s story begins during her sophomore year. She can’t reconcile the district’s official sex education policy, "no sex before marriage," with the fact that Lubbock has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STI infection in the nation. "People just really ignore pregnant girls at my school," she says, noting that teachers in the district risk getting fired if they stray from the official line that abstinence is the only way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Despite her own commitment to remain a virgin until she gets married, Knox spearheads the Lubbock Youth Commission’s efforts to get more information. Just fifteen when she starts this quest, Knox bucks her own pastor, who criticizes her transition to becoming a "liberal" Christian, and compares showing students how to use condoms to showing kids how to use guns. Undaunted by a superintendent who won’t return the Youth Commission’s phone calls, and a principal who tells her that the school board "had warned him" about her, Knox spends three years on a tireless crusade in the name of comprehensive sex education. Undaunted by the adults who treat her as a child, she insists to her parents that her mission is worth the toll it’s taking on her emotionally. She also takes on a new goal: getting the district to approve a gay-straight alliance at her school. She even meets with the head of the right-wing Family Values Coalition, asking him not to object to the teens’ efforts, and doesn’t hesitate to talk back when he challenges her standing as a good Christian.

In the end, Knox didn’t persuade him, or the school board, to take her side. Rather than confront the issue at hand, the City of Lubbock decides to yank the Youth Commission’s funding. Sold out by the Commission’s politically aspiring youth mayor, Knox resigns after three years of fighting. Although she says it’s the first time she tried to do something and failed, one can’t help coming away with the sense that Knox-and the filmmakers-won. Knox, and the documentary, sparked a national debate that no one anticipated. Filmmakers Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt told PBS that when they started making the documentary in 2001, no one wanted to talk about sex education, including a prospective funder who told them that "culture wars are over." Five years later, that’s hardly the case.

Knox continues to push for comprehensive sex education in Texas, where she is studying public policy at the University of Texas at Austin, and schools across the country are engaged in a debate about what should be taught. Don’t think that the abstinence-only policy is limited to conservative Southern states, either; Lipschutz notes that her son’s school outside of New York City "won’t talk about abortion and is giving incomplete information on how HIV/AIDS is transmitted." Twenty minutes away from where I live near Portland, Oregon, across the Washington state border, several school districts teach abstinence-only education. And although it’s considered a "blue" state, Washington doesn’t require schools to teach medically accurate sex education information. State Representative Brian Blake is one of the legislators fighting to pass a bill that would require medically accurate information. His district includes Cowlitz County, which currently has the state’s highest rate of gonorrhea and has high rates of teen pregnancy and other sexually transmitted diseases. Blake, a Democrat, says he can’t understand "for the life of me" why legislators would oppose students having access to medically accurate information. "Abstinence-only education puts kids at risk," he says. "I think we have an obligation to give them age-appropriate information that allows them to make informed decisions. We know that our kids are getting pregnant, and we’ve got to drive the rate of (teen) pregnancy down, and the rate of disease down. You would hope that every home had supportive parents that had open communication with their children, but unfortunately, that’s not the reality that we’re in." If Washington had an advocate like Knox, they’d get a dose of reality pretty quickly.

Written by: M.L. Madison, November 20th 2006