Rethinking sex education in schools

Sarasota representative Fitzgerald co-sponsors state legislation that goes beyond current abstinence-based curriculum

slim@bradenton.comMarch 15, 2009 

BRADENTON — Brenda Alvarado caved in to peer pressure when she was 15.

Her friends and cousins were having sex and they prodded her. The Central High student broke down and slept with her boyfriend of two years.

Brenda, now 16, became pregnant with her son, Santiago. It’s something she didn’t think would happen to her.

Brenda’s story is not uncommon in Manatee County or elsewhere.

Manatee County has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state.

Last year, there were 398 births to teen girls in Manatee County, according to the Manatee County Health Department. Manatee County schools have served 1,150 teenage moms during the last four years. And 17 of those students were in middle school; three were on their second pregnancies.

A bill introduced in the state Legislature could help lower those numbers, supporters say. It calls for changing the way sex education is taught in schools throughout Florida.

The Healthy Teens Act, sponsored by Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, and Sen. Ted Deutch, D-Delray Beach, calls for standardized sex education that goes beyond the current abstinence-based curriculum in schools.

Under the proposed law, sixth-graders would start learning about what it means to be sexually active and about contraceptives as a way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Some Manatee County educators say it’s about time.

In 2007, the most recent numbers available, Manatee County’s teen birth rates surpassed the state’s. Manatee had 37 teen births per 1,000 births, while the state’s rate was 22 teen births for every 1,000 births. The birth rate for teens having more than one child in Manatee County is 20 per 1,000 births, while the state’s is 13 per 1,000.

Reasons typically given for teen pregnancies include peer pressure, low self-esteem among girls, and popular culture.

“Clearly abstinence-only is not successful public policy,” said Fitzgerald. “Kids need more information. Then at least they can be responsible about mitigating the damages.”

Students such as Brenda and other teenage moms wonder if the proposed changes will be enough.

“Lots of students will do what they want to do,” said 17-year-old Erica Benson, a mother of two and a senior at Central High.

Let’s talk about sex

Being a teen mom is difficult, Brenda says.

Though her parents are supportive, she said, it was hard to face their initial disappointment at the news that she was pregnant.

Dasia Yawn, 18, and Erica both know what that feels like.

On top of school and raising their children, both have part-time jobs. All were forced to grow up faster.

It’s not like they didn’t know about the birds and the bees. They learned about it in school. Their parents talked to them about it. So did their friends.

“Kids don’t mind talking about it, it’s no secret,” Erica said.

Almost half of Florida’s teens have had sex, and 8.2 percent, or about 62,000 children, had sex for the first time before the age of 13, according to a Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2007 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Peer pressure is often the driving force that leads teens to have sex. Some girls do it to keep their boyfriends around, they say.

Coupled by what they see in movies such as “Juno” or TV shows like “The Secret Life of an American Teenager” that accept teenage pregnancies, the challenges are overwhelming, said Laura Russin, a health and science teacher at Central High.

“You’re up against the single-parenting era,” she said. “For some students, marriage is not an option. They are pushing marriage back, but not sex.”

The current state law stresses “abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard for all school-age students” and emphasizes that abstinence is a “certain” way to avoid pregnancy and STDs, including HIV and AIDS.

School districts are allowed to choose how they teach sex education as long as they develop abstinence-based programs.

Manatee schools’ curriculum states that students must learn about sex, puberty and sexually transmitted diseases in elementary schools. The lessons deepen in middle school and culminate in a half-year course called Health Opportunities in Physical Education they must take to graduate.

At Johnson Middle, science teacher Ann Cruikshank teaches about the human reproductive system as part of a human anatomy class.

A Manatee County Health Department official was brought in to talk to students about STDs, she said. Parents can choose to withdraw their children from these courses.

A CDC study published last year concluded that formal sex education may reduce risky behavior among teens, when provided before they become sexually active. Other researchers found that comprehensive sex education, which includes contraceptives information, may decrease teen pregnancy rates and delay sexual activity.

Dasia said she wished she had known more about consequences before she decided to have sex. She learned about gonorrhea, Chlamydia or syphilis later in high school.

In Manatee, 260 teenagers were diagnosed with one of those diseases last year, according to the health department. A dozen of those cases were reported in children between the ages of 10 and 14.

When Brenda and Dasia decided to have sex, protecting themselves was not on their minds — even though they have teenage friends who have been pregnant.

They just thought it wouldn’t happen to them.

It’s a struggle

As a teenage mom, Brenda struggles in school and even thought about dropping out.

It was tough to just show up at school, waking up at 5 a.m. to get herself and her son ready.

Her counselors and teachers at Central High talked her out of dropping out. Now, Brenda wants to stay on, graduate and attend Manatee Technical Institute’s cosmetology program.

If given a chance to turn back time, Brenda says she would have done things differently.

She doesn’t regret having her son. But she thinks twice about having a second child, a decision she made with her boyfriend.

“It changes everything,” she said.

For Erica and Dasia, doing well in school means a better income, and a better life for their children. Their part-time jobs aren’t an option.

“I felt like I had to, I didn’t want to rely on anyone,” Dasia said.

Teenage parenthood also costs taxpayers .

Manatee schools expects to spend $386,260 this school year for its TeenAge Parenting Program, and that does not include the salaries of teachers or transportation costs, said Mike McCann, the district’s dropout prevention supervisor. The county estimated it bore another $770,000 in one year for costs including health care and child welfare.

Between 1991 and 2004, teen births cost Florida taxpayers $8.1 billion, said Adrienne Kimmell, the executive director of Florida Planned Parenthood Affiliates, which is part of the Healthy Teens Coalition. The coalition is pushing for the bill in Tallahassee.

If the bill passes, Kimmell said, it shouldn’t cost the school district to implement the changes to their sex education curriculum.

Manatee schools officials say they already will have to rewrite their sex education curriculum because of new health education standards, said Judy Griffin, the district’s curriculum specialist.

Starting at home

Broaching the subject of sex can be awkward and embarrassing for parents.

As a teacher and parent, Cruikshank says it’s easier for teachers to talk about sex to children. She often hopes that the discussion about sex in school would inspire more in-depth discussions at home.

“They can go further as parent, and talk about their beliefs and all that,” she said.

Phillip Muldoon, a father of eight, thinks schools should only teach academic lessons and leave the sex talk to parents.

“Life should be taught at home,” he said.

Diane Lang, a mother of two, disagrees.

For some children, school is the only place they will be able to get information about sex and all its consequences, she said. She wants schools to talk about contraceptives, too.

Though it was hard to start on the topic with her children, she would rather they talk with her about it rather than be misinformed by the things they hear from their friends.

Muldoon makes sure he talks with his kids, too, about sex and its consequences. He thinks the Internet is a great provider of useful information, as long as it’s monitored.

He also has another selling point.

“I have an easy weapon,” he said. “I have eight children, and none of my children want eight kids.”

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