Teens take center stage in Manatee County pregnancy prevention

May 16, 2013 

Teenagers have a long reputation for ignoring the sage advice of parents, educators and other adult authority figures while eager to listen to their friends and fellow youths. Now this peer-to-peer communication is working well in Manatee County's ongoing effort to stem teen pregnancy.

Students on the Manatee County Youth Commission's Teen Pregnancy Prevention Committee are creating greater awareness of this daunting issue by educating youngsters about the profound impacts of early pregnancy.

This issue raised considerable alarm in the community several years ago in the wake of an inexplicable surge in the number of teen pregnancies. In response, the school board rewrote the district's sex education curriculum, which had been abstinence-based. Under the district's "It's Your Choice" program, older middle school students are taught about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases as well as abstinence. Parents can opt out of the program, which has expanded to about 4,000 students this year.

Manatee County government, concerned about the millions of dollars in social and health services from teen pregnancies, granted the district $288,000 in 2010 to launch the program and continues with funding today.

Though the pregnancy rate has fallen and Manatee has dropped to 27th in the state, 2011 statistics show the birth rate of females age 12 to 19 at 23.4 percent of all births in the county. That's 4.5 percentage points above the state average.

Manatee County still faces challenges over this issue. The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Committee recognized that dilemma when forming last year.

Led by committee chair Ella Biggins, a sophomore at Braden River High School, the committee is on its way toward accomplishing its mission. The Bradenton, Palmetto and Manatee County governments all issued proclamations declaring May 2013 as Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month. The school board also approved the measure this week with Biggins and fellow committee member and Southeast High senior Meg Rivera presenting and then accepting the proclamation.

Similar declarations have been issued in the past, including one in 2010 that paid tribute to the then fledgling Healthy Teen Coalition of Manatee County. The board of county commissioners stated the organization has "been developed as a blueprint to assist local communities in implementing a comprehensive approach to addressing teen pregnancy prevention ..."

A number of youth-centered organizations also sponsor teen pregnancy prevention programs, including Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County, Just for Girls and the PACE Center for Girls.

Working closely with the Healthy Teens Coalition, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Committee is a welcome addition to the effort. The six-member panel includes St. Stephen's sophomore Toby Chinwuba and three other Braden River students, Gianna Traylor, Marcella Richardson and Victoria Najmy, all juniors.

They hope to gain assistance from stakeholders, local governments and the school board as they advance their agenda of positive messages and information. They seek a political leader to help deliver their message, and we encourage one to volunteer.

Jessica Spencer, the youth commission's project director, lauded the students for making a difference -- singling out Ella Biggins for being "really focused on doing a great job." In a Herald report last week, Spencer also stated: "She's amazing and she has proven her dedication to the group."

In that report, Biggins recounted how her friends expressed surprise at her involvement but came around after considering the number of pregnant teens they knew. "Now they think it's cool," she said of her volunteer efforts.

That's exactly the reaction the community needs: teen convincing teens about the poor outcomes of early pregnancy. Kudos to the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Committee.

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