MAUSTON, Wis. – Mike Taake has taught sex education for 30 years, and he says he knows what doesn't work: just telling kids to wait.
The Mauston High School health teacher has used abstinence-only and comprehensive curriculums, and he said students need all the information they can get about sex to make the best choices. But teaching them about contraceptives could land him and other teachers in court.
Juneau County District Attorney Scott Southworth last month sent a letter to area school districts warning that health teachers who tell students how to put on a condom or take birth-control pills could face criminal charges. The warning has left many teachers, school administrators and parents flabbergasted.
"Seems like a step back in time," Taake said of Southworth's logic.
Southworth, a Republican and a Christian evangelical, took issue with a law Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed in February requiring schools that teach sexual education to adopt a comprehensive approach.
Southworth warned that teaching a student how to properly use contraceptives would be contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor punishable by up to nine months behind bars and a $10,000 fine. He said it would be promoting sex among minors, who are not legally allowed to have sex in Wisconsin.
"It puts the school kind of in the middle between two sides, between the government and state telling us what should be taught and what people think should not be taught," said Scott Lenz, a health teacher in the New Lisbon School District. He said he would teach contraceptive use if he got the approval of his school board.
Southworth said he doesn't want to drag teachers into court but feels he was ethically responsible for warning them of the new law's potential consequences. He urged the school districts to refrain from offering sex education courses until the Legislature repeals the law.
"Listen, there's a real problem with the law," he said. "I didn't pick the fight. The Legislature dumped it in my lap."
Southworth didn't cite evidence in his letter showing that teaching someone to use contraceptives makes them more likely to have sex. But in an interview Thursday, he pointed to Milwaukee Public Schools, which teach a comprehensive sex education curriculum but still struggle with high teen pregnancy rates. Sex education experts, however, say many social factors influence teens' decisions to have sex, including lack of parental supervision and poverty.
Janine Geske, a Marquette University law professor and former state Supreme Court justice, said she didn't understand Southworth's legal logic. She said that if he tried to prosecute a teacher for adhering to guidelines approved by the Legislature and governor, the case would likely be dismissed.
"To be frank, I can't follow exactly what he's trying to get at," Geske said. "If a teacher is educating a student pursuant to state law ... I don't see how under any examination (that) could be criminal."
In Wisconsin, children under age 17 who have sex with each other can be prosecuted as juveniles. Seventeen-year-olds who have sex with one another can be convicted as adults of a misdemeanor.
Wisconsin schools aren't required to teach sex education. But under the new law, which was backed by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, schools that do must teach a range of topics, including the benefits of abstinence, the proper use of contraceptives, how to make responsible decisions and the criminal penalties for underage sex. Parents can choose to keep their children out of the classes.
Southworth says he's not trying to bolster his reputation as a social conservative for a potential run for higher office, but his stance has proved popular with anti-abortion groups.
Juneau County, a poor, rural county between Madison and the Minnesota border, is about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Voters narrowly backed former President George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 elections, but sided with President Barack Obama in 2008.
The county's teen birth rate last year was 33.9 per 1,000, which was three percentage points higher than the state rate, according to a 2009 health report by the county and the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
Matt Sande, the legislative director of Pro-Life Wisconsin, which opposes the new law, said every district attorney in Wisconsin should follow Southworth's lead.
"We commend him for his courage, his frankness in exposing the consequences of this irresponsible new law," Sande said. "If I were a district administrator, I would want to know the impact."
And Janet McCauley, a speech teacher in the Mauston district, said she thinks the new sex education guidelines promote "sexual curiosity" and that Southworth's warning was necessary.
"This is dangerous to our young people. I just think the whole bill wasn't thought out enough."
But many parents said they were befuddled by Southworth's warning.
Audrey Jensen, whose 16-year-old daughter, Justina, is a sophomore at Mauston High School, said Southworth is trying to censor what students learn, usurping the role of parents. Children will have sex regardless, she said, and they need all the information they can get.
"I think he's actually a little unrealistic," said Jensen, 47. "Obviously he doesn't remember being a teenager."
Mauston High School quarterback Brady Nelson, 16, said sex education doesn't encourage teens to do it and Southworth should leave health teachers alone.
"It teaches you more about the bad side of it than the good," he said. "You're not going to learn any other way. You can't really charge a teacher for teaching us about the ways of life."
Taake said he intends to teach contraceptive use and isn't worried about being prosecuted.
"It's not just teaching them how birth control works. It's everything else that goes with it," he said. "To arrest me for teaching correct birth control and the student makes the wrong decision and gets pregnant, that's not my decision."