When Jim Rumage, the superintendent of the only high school in Crane, Texas, sent a letter to parents warning them chlamydia was "on the rise" among students, he thought he was acting prudently. He didn't realise the notice would turn Crane – a 3,400-person oil boomtown with just one stoplight in the Chihuahua desert – into a national story, a painful, burning example of what happens when schools don't offer sex education.
Rumage told local media that 20 of his teenage students—about one in 15—had contracted the sexually transmitted disease, an outbreak that the Centers for Disease Control said reached "epidemic proportions." But only after MTV, People, the Washington Post, and The View had spread word about the story, did a surprising twist appear: Crane actually hadn't experienced a chlamydia outbreak at all.
Texas health officials told me Monday that the state has confirmed just four recent cases of chlamydia in all of Crane County; and in an interview today, Rumage said that three of those were his students. It turns out a local doctor had informed Rumage that 21 teens had been tested for chlamydia, not confirmed, and the school superintendent got a bit confused.
"When they said tested I probably thought confirmed, and I was just trying to be proactive and thought if they tested 20 people, there was some reason for it," Rumage told me.
But mistake that might have been happily forgotten in a remote West Texas town isn't as easily erased on the worldwide web. "It was a misunderstanding but people go for – for lack of a better word – BS," Rumage said. "I was trying to inform our parents and somehow the media got a hold of it and blew it totally out of proportion."
"What the hell would y'all be saying if I had said, 'I don't give a damn, let's sweep this under the rug?'" Rumage challenged me. "I don't have anything to hide. I did what I thought was best."
Now, as Crane students go about their routines of classes, band practice, church, and Sonic drive-thru meals, they bear a scarlet "C."
"This has been very upsetting to the students and the community, and now for it to come out that the outbreak isn't really true is even more devastating," the local high school band director, Daniel Todd, told me.
"Some of our kids even started being mean to each other placing blame without any facts," Todd added. "Now the town and students are trying to rally around each other saying, 'This isn't true, and we're going to stick together.' It's been a very painful process."
According to Crane cheerleading instructor Terra Willis, the local community has started rallying around the the hashtag #liftingupcrane, to combat the public battering. "Surrounding towns have been saying ugly things but the kids are good here," Willis told me. "There are a lot of good things happening in Crane people don't know about."
"It doesn't take long for the whole world to turn on you," one Crane mom wrote in a recent #liftingupcrane Facebook post. "The real world is very cruel and there are mean and hateful people everywhere, but as a community we can change that."
As much torment as the false chlamydia alarm may have caused in Crane, it has also sparked a discussion about a subject long neglected in the Bible Belt hamlet: sexual education. The Crane school board will vote next week on a proposal to incorporate a sex ed class into local schools, a measure that Crane Independent School District's curriculum director hopes will pass.
"This did make us aware that we need some kind of abstinence or sex ed program," the director Yolanda Carr told me. The board voted against adding any program in April 2012, Carr said, because "it's small town USA and they thought they didn't need it."
Texas schools are not required to teach sex education. Those that do are required to teach abstinence-based programs, but can incorporate lessons about safe sex into the course. According to the Texas Freedom Network, a state civil liberties group, most districts refrain from even broaching the subject.
"From our research we found very few districts actually do teach sex ed and the ones that teach abstinence-only give misleading information, like scare tactics about false failure rates of condoms," Jose Medina, Texas Freedom Network's communications director, told me. "Abstinence-only programs do not work and we've found that in our research."
Despite the recent spotlight on STDs in Crane, though, there are still holdouts who prefer a "don't ask, don't tell approach" when it comes to teen sex. "Even if we had a serious, expensive sex education program here, the few incidents could happen that did," Todd insisted. "And you're going to have half the parents thinking, 'I don't want my kids taught that.' It's a very tough issue."
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