LEBANON, Ind. – Ryan Tucker sits on a white plastic table at the front of the classroom, flipping a blue marker as his students shift in their seats.
He swings his feet as he lays out the rules for the next 82 minutes: Don’t make jokes, don’t be afraid to ask questions, let me know if you start to feel sick.
He heads back for his desk and the slideshow that waits on his computer. As he does, a boy tugs at his sleeve.
“Is this gonna be a disgusting PowerPoint?” he asks.
Tucker smirks. “You’ll see.”
Today, with fewer than two weeks of classes left at Lebanon High School, is sex education day. Tucker is in his ninth year of teaching health in a state that restricts what he can tell his students about sex, even as its teenagers give birth at astonishing rates.
In Indiana, teaching protection isn’t an option — state law dictates a sex education system based on abstinence.
Tucker runs through the seven diseases in his slide show — warts, pus, blistering rashes by the dozen — as the students avoid his gaze. One has to leave the room.
He tells them what can happen if a sexually transmitted disease is left untreated and reminds them how many STDs are floating through the school.
But he can’t tell them how to protect themselves. Not unless they ask.
Tucker closes the slideshow and fumbles through his desk. He pulls out a crumpled paper bag and sets it on the table beside him.
“By state law, I am not allowed to teach anything but abstinence,” he says. “But I can give you general information if you ask the right questions. I even have some special things here in the brown bag.”
The whole class looks away.
Indiana’s approach to sexual education begs teenagers to wait until marriage.
Teachers in Indiana public schools are required to “teach abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard for all school age children,” according to the Indiana Code. The same section mandates teaching abstinence as being the only way to avoid unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
“The best way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and other associated health problems is to establish a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of a marriage,” the Code reads.
Evidence is mounting that the current approach doesn’t work.
A 2013 Centers for Disease Control study said 34 percent of high schoolers are sexually active. Indiana’s teen birth rate is “significantly higher” than the national average, and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy says half of Indiana pregnancies for women between 15 and 44 aren’t intended.
The same National Campaign study found abstinence-only programs to have no effect on teenagers’ sexual behavior and called for the end of federal funding to such programs.
Yet Indiana’s leaders shy away from the topic, repeatedly shooting down any attempt at reform.
The most recent effort, Senate Bill 497, would have required the Departments of Education and Health to discuss improved standards for sexual health education. It received bipartisan support but failed a committee vote in February.
“Frankly, this was a common-sense initiative, and I am disappointed it failed to advance,” Sen. Jean Breaux, D-34th District, the proposal’s author, said in a statement.
Leslie Montgomery, a leading educator for Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, said she’s provided more comprehensive sex education to churches, organizations and schools. The desire for change is there, she said, but the stigma of sex wins out.
“I don’t think people necessarily believe that it’s not important so much as that fear, that guilt, that shame that many of us have grown up with,” she said.
Even so, sex education seems on the brink of change across the country. At least 18 bills related to sex education are expected to go through U.S. statehouses in 2015, the International Business Times reported.
A California judge made the first move this month, ruling abstinence-only education in violation of a law that prohibits medically inaccurate or biased information in public schools’ sexual ?education.
Indiana has no such law.
A decade ago, Tucker sat in a classroom at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and watched the professor take out a box. He waited as the old professor explained the rules: Grab something from the box, sit in a circle and tell the class what it is as you introduce yourself.
So they did, a classroom full of graduate students explaining how to use condoms, dildos and assorted sex toys. “There were things people held up I’ve never seen before, and I don’t think they had either,” Tucker says.
It was the first day of HLTH-412, a graduate-level human sexuality course Tucker credits for his interest in sex education.
“It was awesome,” he says. “I learned more from that than from most classes I took.”
As a student at Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Ind., Tucker received the same kind of sex education he’s required to give now — abstinence-based, with little focus on what happens beyond that. His health teacher, nearing retirement, didn’t show interest in going further.
“There wasn’t any delving into the gray area,” he says. “If I was going to be a health teacher, I didn’t want to be like him.”
He started teaching in 2006. Since then, he’s gotten married, coached the school’s soccer team, had a son and become one of Lebanon’s most well-liked teachers.
His son is 2 years old, too young for the Talk. But even though he’s given the lecture dozens of times, Tucker hasn’t decided exactly what he is going to say when the time comes.
It’s been an hour, and Tucker’s students have discovered two of the bag’s special things: a single Trojan condom and a rolled-up white sock, which Tucker used to show how the Trojan works.
But there’s something left, so he sits, waiting for the right question to come as the class builds up the courage.
A group of boys in a back corner starts to whisper to one another. “Just ask him, man! Be brave!” they say. A hand goes halfway up, then jerks back down.
“C’mon guys, you’ve got to ask the right questions,” Tucker says. They ask a few more.
How do you use a condom properly?
What’s birth control?
Does the morning-after pill work?
Still, nothing else comes out of the bag.
The class breaks into more giggles with each question. But one boy, a tall athlete in a too-tight T-shirt, isn’t impressed.
“I think I have a pretty good understanding,” he says, a grin growing on his face.
Tucker shakes his head. “I bet you don’t know anything close to what you need to know.”
It’s Tucker’s job to get as close the line as he can.
When he was hired, Lebanon was in the midst of a growing teen pregnancy problem. The school administration asked him to help fix it by working in the gray area between comprehensive sex education and teaching ?abstinence.
“My gray area is I’m not allowed to lay out a specific lesson plan, but I can give general information,” he says. “If they ask questions, I can spill all the beans.”
He needed a way to bridge the gap between what the state mandates and what his students need to know. That’s where the bag came from. If you hide sex away, nobody can get offended.
He knows fellow health teachers who use the same methods.
Before he started class, Tucker asked his 28 students how many had talked about sex with their parents. Just nine raised their hands. That leaves him as the primary provider of information.
It’s not ideal. He knows that, and it’s becoming apparent his students know that.
“How can I ask a question if I don’t know what I don’t know?” a girl asks him. Tucker didn’t have an answer.
“You’ve just got to ask the right questions, I guess,” he says. “Sorry.”
Montgomery doesn’t know what the perfect sex education system would look like, she says. But Indiana doesn’t have it.
To start, sexual health should be taught more frequently than once in elementary school and once in high school, she says. And it doesn’t have to be a separate day — take sex education and blend it with history, social studies, science, math and the rest of the curriculum.
“It would start with kindergarten or even preschool, and it would continue,” she says. “There would be some attention paid to it every year, and it would be integrated into the curriculum.”
Tucker says he’s open to change, so long as it doesn’t stray too far from emphasizing abstinence, which he often reminds his students is “the only 100-percent sure way to avoid STDs and ?pregnancies.”
But in a school with almost a dozen pregnant students and a steady stream who ask him for STD testing information, he understands it can’t be the only way.
“I think it’s important that you do teach abstinence-based, but I think that we’re lying to ourselves if we’re not giving students who aren’t going to use that some other education, information, ways to protect themselves,” he says.
Senate Resolution 33, passed last March, gave the first sign of progress. It urged the state’s Legislative Council to study the effect of teen pregnancy education and was adopted twice by the Senate. So far, nothing has come of it.
More than 90 percent of American middle schoolers and parents believe sex education should be incorporated into curricula, according to a study by the Sexuality Information and Education Council. With that kind of public support, Montgomery says, change is coming — however slowly.
“You’ve got to be satisfied with baby steps until you get where you’re going,” she says. “And that’s frustrating.”
At 10:44 a.m., the bell rings, sending Tucker’s students into a scatter. Two boys high-five as they walk out the door. Most just stare at their feet. One girl waits for the room to clear out, then approaches his desk, hands clasped in front of her. She wants the address for the Boone County Community Clinic, which offers free STD testing. “Also, where’s the cheapest place around here to buy condoms?” she asks.
Tucker doesn’t know. The drugstore, probably, he says.
Good enough for her. She’s late to her next class, anyway. As she walks away, Tucker rolls up the paper bag with a sigh. It’s empty.
“That’s my secret,” Tucker says. “There’s nothing else in the bag. But if they knew that, the questions would stop.”
He stuffs it in a cabinet underneath his desk, where it will stay for another semester.