The Education of Shelby Knox, a documentary chronicling a high school student’s campaign to bring alternatives to abstinence-only education to her school in Lubbock, Texas. A lot happens in eight years. Shelby has since graduated from both high school and college; she is now 23 years old and living in New York City. With Obama in office, abstinence-only education has all been but written out of the proposed budget for next year.
But, the film has not been made irrelevant. Even now, the fate of abstinence-only education is not entirely clear. Abstinence-only education has the infrastructure of over 20 years of support through over a billion dollars in funding, despite indications that it does not work (indeed, Lubbock had one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy as Shelby informs us in the film’s opening scenes).
More than abstinence-only education, this film is about the struggle of youth to be heard. Shelby works with the local youth commission, a group set up under the auspices of the local city council. When the youth commission decides to support bringing comprehensive sex education to schools, the call is met with deaf ears. Then, threats loom that the mayor will pull the plug on the youth commission ostensibly for budgetary reasons.
Ultimately, Shelby outgrows the youth commission – there is no room in city hall for her opinions, efforts or causes. It seems likely that the youth commission, now defunct, was never intended to serve as a platform for serious issues. And here is the tragedy of lost opportunity. All across the country, there are attempts by youth to tell us what it is that they need to lead healthy and meaningful lives – whether it is through youth organizations, movements, or media. Instead of listening to these voices, adults often make the mistake of believing that controlling access to information will control the behavior they wish to see change. Like abstinence-only education, such censorship plays out with internet filters that block sites such as those providing information regarding sexual orientation at a time when teens are developing their sexual identities. And worse, our society has started to prosecute teens as criminals for behaviors such as sending text messages with allegedly sexual images of themselves.
There is a happy ending to this story. In her early twenties, Shelby has grown into a feminist, an activist, and a youth educator. She continues to speak out on the issues important to her through platforms such as her blog. Her frustrating battle against the school board may just have given Shelby the tools necessary to become a powerful ally for youth as an adult.