Last July, I spoke with Sky H., a 20-year–old who identifies as non-binary and grew up in a very conservative rural town in the Black Belt region of Alabama. In school, Sky received abstinence-only education. Sky told me there was little instruction about sexual and reproductive health besides the basics of reproduction.
After years of pain, Sky was diagnosed at age 18 with endometriosis, a painful disorder that can lead to fertility complications. The condition might have been diagnosed much earlier if they had learned more about their own bodies and reproductive health in school, Sky believed.
Unfortunately, Sky’s experience isn’t unique. Over the past year and a half, I’ve spoken to more than 40 young people from 16 counties throughout Alabama who also didn’t learn about their sexual and reproductive health in school. Like Sky, they missed out on critical information and described the negative impact this had on the choices they made and their health as they grew older.
Schools in Alabama are not required to teach about sexual health but if they do, the State Code mandates a focus on abstinence. The State Code also contains stigmatizing language around same-sex activity and prohibits schools from teaching about sexual health in ways that affirm lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth. This makes it even harder for young people like Sky to get information.
Comprehensive sexuality education can improve health outcomes for young people. It can help them learn about their bodies and how to recognize abnormal gynecological symptoms, steps they can take to prevent and treat sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and other dangers to their health, and where they can go for reproductive health services.
Sex ed can also educate young people about the human papillomavirus (HPV) — the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. — and how to lower their risk of HPV-related cancers through the HPV vaccine.
This information can improve young people’s health and save lives. Yet so few young people in schools throughout Alabama — and the U.S. — receive it. Instead, like Sky and other Alabama students, many young people receive abstinence-focused education.
These programs withhold critical, science-based information young people need to make safer decisions on their sexual health. They also shame adolescents about their sexuality, often leaving young people uncertain about who they can talk to or where they can go for accurate information about sexual behavior and health.
The problem is both a lack of political will and of adequate funding. Discriminatory property taxes and an inequitable education system leave many school districts in rural and less wealthy regions of Alabama without adequate funding. This means that programs considered optional, like sex ed, often aren’t offered.
Alabama, a state with high rates of sexually transmitted infections and cancers related to HPV needs to do more to address historic inequalities and state neglect that have left Black people at a higher risk of poor health outcomes. Mandating comprehensive sexuality education for all of the state’s schools — and allocating state funding for these programs — would be an important step forward.
Students in underfunded and neglected school districts — many of whom are Black and living in poverty — often lose out on access to critical and lifesaving information. It keeps them from being able to make informed and safe decisions and can harm their health. This unequal access to information can create lifelong disadvantages and may contribute to racial disparities in health as young people age into adulthood.
The Black Belt region of Alabama, where Sky is from, has high rates of poverty and poor health outcomes. The Black Belt region also has high rates of sexually transmitted infections and the highest rates of HIV in the state. Yet schools in this rural and marginalized region of the state are persistently underfunded.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought glaring attention to systemic inequalities and racial disparities in health, including in Alabama, where Black people are significantly more likely to die from the virus than white people. Within the United States, we continue to see the disproportionate toll the pandemic has taken on Black people, who are more likely to live in poverty, lack access to health insurance, and suffer from chronic health conditions that put them at a higher risk of adverse health outcomes from the virus.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of ensuring that everyone has the information, tools, and resources they need to make informed decisions to protect their health. Schools in Alabama — and across the country — should help do that for all young people.
The pandemic is also showing us what happens when discrimination and neglect leave certain people out.
Opinion | Oh God, Our Father
“We find ourselves mired in chaos once again.”
We come to you seeking peace for our country and comfort for our hearts. We have turned to you for countless decades when we faced dire circumstances such as war, health issues and social strife that threatened to turn our citizens against each other.
We have sought your wisdom and counsel. We have sought the calmness that only you can bring to our land.
We have begged for forgiveness and that you rid our hearts and minds of thoughts that betray the foundation our forefathers built this land on.
You have never failed us.
So we lift our voices again. From every corner of this great land, from sea to sea and from horizon to horizon.
Our voices are more diverse than ever before. But rather than celebrating this diversity and reaching out to embrace it, too many voices have instead turned to those same prejudices that time after time have set us back, not moved us forward.
We find ourselves mired in chaos once again. Chaos incited in large measure by voices that betray us and this land we love dearly.
And as we approach the day when a new cadre of leaders are supposed to take over the reins of our government, there are voices calling for disruption and perhaps violence. At a time when we need sanity, some preach just the opposite.
Oh God, Our Father:
Hear our plea and cast your spirit across this wonderful land so that tomorrow will be greater than yesterday.
Opinion | This leader inspires confidence
“It takes a proven leader to make thoughtful, vigilant decisions in times of chaos.”
There is no playbook in a pandemic. There are no hard and fast rules in a fast-moving crisis. Second-guessing in a crisis, especially from those who have never had to deal with such pressures, is counterproductive.
It takes a proven leader to make thoughtful, vigilant decisions in times of chaos.
Following the uncertainty that defined last spring and summer, Auburn University forged into an unpredictable fall, making necessary tough decisions in the midst of an unprecedented crisis as it transitioned back to campus. Although many institutions opted for fully remote instruction, suspending classes, or even canceling semesters entirely, Auburn committed to creating a safe campus environment while preserving many of the benefits of a residential academic community.
Despite the pandemic’s myriad challenges, Auburn remained open throughout the fall and had a successful semester, thanks to countless students, faculty, and staff who understood the importance of safety protocols and upheld shared institutional values. Not surprisingly, there was an increase in COVID-19 cases in the first few weeks of the fall semester, but the number of cases declined and remained at negligible levels for the remainder of the term.
Amazingly, Auburn was able to avoid the employee furloughs, layoffs, salary cuts, and hiring freezes which have befallen other colleges and universities throughout the country. In addition to holding town halls with faculty and staff, I know the university worked diligently to respond to concerns, adjust policies and procedures, and implement safety measures that enabled the institution to continue delivering on its mission of teaching, research, and outreach. The versatility and nimbleness exhibited by Auburn’s leadership, faculty, staff, and students in navigating the extraordinary circumstances resulting from the pandemic are impressive.
As our country grapples with an unprecedented public health crisis and a highly volatile political climate, we know that one of the best ways to support students is to foster a structured learning environment that supports critical thinking, advances problem solving, encourages empathy, and promotes diversity of thought.
With this in mind, and using the past semester as a guide, the university is preparing to start the spring semester next week with more than 70 percent of classes face-to-face. Although some may disagree with a return to on-campus learning, the decision to do so was made based on careful consideration by the university’s senior leadership. These leaders sought feedback from local, state, and federal medical professionals, shared governance groups, campus representatives at various levels, and other sources, including state government and peer institutions.
Last month, Governor Ivey encouraged educational institutions to return to the classroom for the spring. A majority of students and faculty who have communicated their preferences favor returning to the classroom while still providing flexibility to faculty and students who request it. Indeed, there is an unavoidable cost to remote learning — we have seen its negative effect on the mental health of both students and faculty members.
Although the decision to return to on-campus instruction is supported by many, some have voiced opposition. The changing and uncertain nature of the pandemic often leads to fear and, in some cases, anger. Unfortunately, much of this anger has been directed at Bill Hardgrave, Auburn’s provost and chief academic officer. Recently, this frustration has manifested in a specially-called — and horribly misguided — meeting to take a vote of no confidence. At Auburn, it takes only 50 faculty members of the more than 1,700 faculty to sign a petition calling for such a vote. That is fewer than 3 percent of the entire faculty!
This action is regrettable. It sends a false message about a leader who has stepped up to forge an uncharted path during extraordinary times. Throughout this unprecedented year, Dr. Hardgrave has taken deliberate measures to consult with and to incorporate faculty opinion, and to allow exceptions to in-person teaching when it presented a hardship for a faculty member. He has encouraged innovative approaches to pedagogy and helped deliver excellence, which is the hallmark of an Auburn education and a renowned faculty.
Auburn President Jay Gogue said recently, “A no-confidence vote in the midst of a global pandemic and social unrest when student, faculty, staff and administration leaders have worked diligently together for the best interests of our campus is unprecedented and destructive.”
At a time when our nation is experiencing profound divisiveness at all levels, Auburn has a unique opportunity to demonstrate its role as a leader in higher education. Dr. Hardgrave’s proven ability to guide Auburn’s academic enterprise during these unprecedented times is indisputable. His efforts have exemplified The Auburn Creed, demonstrating a belief in education, hard work, honesty, and sympathy for the interests of the university’s students, faculty, and staff.
Not only does a vote of no confidence damage the reputation of an academic leader who has served Auburn admirably for the past ten years, but it damages the reputation of our university among the higher education community, and it undermines its credibility with our students, parents, alumni, community, and accrediting agencies. It does not benefit the university, but rather undercuts the hard work of so many members of the Auburn Family in advancing our mission during the pandemic. I strongly encourage those who wish to express a rational, constructive voice in furthering Auburn’s mission to continue to speak up in support of Dr. Hardgrave and, thus, in support of our university. You are being heard.
Opinion | We lost some good ones this year
We lost some good ones this year, who will definitely be missed as we head into 2021.
As is my annual ritual, my yearend column pays tribute to Alabama political legends who have passed away during the year.
Sonny Cauthen passed away in Montgomery at age 70. He was the ultimate inside man in Alabama politics. Cauthen was a lobbyist before lobbying was a business. He kept his cards close to his vest, and you never knew what he was doing.
Cauthen was the ultimate optimist who knew what needed to be achieved and found like-minded allies with whom to work. When he had something to get done, he bulldozed ahead and achieved his mission. He was a yellow dog Democrat who believed in equal treatment and rewarding hard work. He was an avid outdoorsman and hunter and mentored a good many young men in Montgomery.
Another Montgomerian who will never be forgotten was State Rep. Alvin Holmes, who passed away at 81. Like Sonny, Holmes was born and raised and lived his entire life in his hometown of Montgomery. He, too, was a real Democrat and an icon in Alabama politics.
Holmes represented the people of Montgomery for 44 years in the Alabama House of Representatives. He was one of the most dynamic and outspoken legislators in Alabama history, as well as one of the longest-serving members.
I had the opportunity to serve with Holmes for close to two decades in the Legislature. We shared a common interest in Alabama political history. In fact, Holmes taught history at Alabama State University for a long time. He was always mindful of the needs of his district, as well as Black citizens throughout the state. Holmes was one of the first Civil Rights leaders in Montgomery and Alabama. He helped organize the Alabama Democratic Conference and was Joe Reed’s chief lieutenant for years.
We lost another Civil Rights icon this year. John Lewis was born in rural Pike County in the community of Banks. After graduating from college, Lewis joined Dr. Martin Luther King as a soldier in the army for civil rights. Lewis was beaten by Alabama State Troopers near the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the infamous Bloody Sunday Selma to Montgomery march. He became a Civil Rights legend in America.
He was one of King’s closest allies. Lewis became almost as renowned worldwide as King. Lewis moved to Atlanta with King and was elected to Congress from Atlanta and served 33 years with distinction. Even though Lewis was a national celebrity, he would take time out of his busy schedule to drive from Atlanta to rural Pike County to go to church with his mother at her beloved Antioch Baptist Church. Lewis died of pancreatic cancer in July at age 80.
Another Alabama political legend, John Dorrill, passed away in January at age 90. Ironically, Dorrill and Lewis were both born and raised in rural Pike County near Troy. Dorrill went to work for the powerful Alabama Farmers Federation shortly after graduating from Auburn. He worked for the federation for 43 years.
For the last 20 years of his career, he oversaw and was the mastermind of their political plans and operations as executive director of the federation. He retired and lived out his final years on his ancestral home place in Pike County. Dorrill was one of my political mentors and friends.
Another Montgomery political icon, former Republican State Sen. Larry Dixon, passed away only a few weeks ago from COVID-19 complications at age 78. He served over 20 years in the state Legislature. Dixon epitomized the conservative Republican, and his voting record was right in line with his Montgomery constituency.
He was known as “Montgomery’s state senator” but his ultimate legacy may be as a great family man. Dixon was a devoted husband to his wife, Gaynell, and father to his two daughters. He was a good man.
Former Alabama Supreme Court Judge Hugh Maddox recently passed away at age 90. Maddox served 31 years on the Alabama Supreme Court before his retirement in 2001.
One of my favorite fellow legislators and friends, Rep. Richard Laird of Roanoke, passed away last week from COVID-19. He was 81 and served 36 years in the Alabama House of Representatives. Laird was a great man and very conservative legislator.
In addition to Richard Laird, Alvin Holmes, and Larry Dixon, several other veteran Alabama legislators passed away this year including Ron Johnson, Jack Page and James Thomas. We lost some good ones this year, who will definitely be missed as we head into 2021.
Happy New Year.
Opinion | Bradley Byrne: Thank you
“Thank you for allowing me to represent you.”
This is my last weekly report as your congressman. Serving you in Washington these last seven years has been a great honor, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity you have given me. I never once walked out on the floor of the House of Representatives when I wasn’t in awe that I was there to speak and vote for you.
I leave Congress with hope and optimism about our country and our part of the country.
American elites, who control most of our news and entertainment outlets, would have you believe that America is a weakening, evil nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’d not traveled abroad much before coming to Congress but, particularly given my work on the Armed Services Committee. I’ve traveled a lot more these last seven years. No matter where I went, American power was evident, and I heard from allies and adversaries a clear expectation that we are the world’s leader in nearly every way that matters.
What this has meant for the world is remarkable. The rules-based system we created after World War II, and the example of our democracy and economy changed things on a truly global scale. Global per capita gross domestic product has more than tripled during the last 75 years and the percentage of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from 66 percent to less than 10 percent. Before World War II, there were more autocracies than democracies. Today, 96 nations are true democracies, and less than 80 are autocracies.
What we have achieved at home is equally impressive. We have more rights and freedoms equally enjoyed than any nation in the history of the world. No one can match our standard of living, our health care system, or our ability to face and address the issues that still challenge us.
I know this year has been hard on all of us. We’ve experienced a pandemic, an abruptly sharp recession, riots, and down here two hurricanes. Some of us have lost loved ones or had the disease ourselves. But, our resilience as a nation and as a region has allowed us to enter 2021 looking forward to widespread distribution of the vaccine and return to a new normal.
America is a strong nation because of our morals and principles: freedom, equal opportunity, hard work, fair play, patriotism and faith in God. If we ever lose those, we will lose our strength, like Sampson without his hair.
I said earlier that I am hopeful and optimistic. That’s because these last seven years I’ve had the rare opportunity to see our nation as a whole and not just the part where I live. I’ve met and worked with genuinely good and smart people. And I have an appreciation for the important national institutions which have developed over the decades to provide the structures within which the American people work their will.
My ancestor, Gerald Byrne, came over from Ireland to what was then the colony of West Florida. He escaped poverty and a brutally repressive British occupation of his home country. Here he had freedom to be his own man, opportunity to make his own way, and the courage to take advantage of it all. Over 200 years later one of his descendants would end up in the House of Representatives. That’s amazing, but that’s America.
I want our country to continue to provide these opportunities to all of our people. I want us to maintain our morals and principles. And I want us all to be hopeful and optimistic because we have every reason to be so.
Thank you for allowing me to represent you. I will always cherish the fact you trusted me to speak and act for you. I hope I lived up to your expectations.
God bless you and God bless the United States of America.