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Area teen pregnancy rate triggers discussion

BRADENTON — The rising number of teenagers giving birth in Manatee County shocked many community leaders Friday.

The information sparked a lively discussion at a CEO Roundtable on how sex education is conducted in schools and how it should be taught.

A brief debate also ensued when Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Gwen Brown said the abstinence-based program Manatee schools are providing students is not working.

“If you don’t come to grips with that, we’ll have this number and that number go up,” she said.

In the past three years, the Florida Health Department recorded a rise in teen births, from 333 in 2005 to 398 in 2008. The rate is one of the highest in the state. In four years, Manatee schools have served 1,150 teenage mothers including middle school students. There are 17 teenage mothers in middle school, including three with two children.

State law requires schools to provide an abstinence-based program, said Lynette Edwards, the school district’s assistant superintendent of academics. Parents also are allowed to withdraw their students during sex-education classes. But a couple of pending bills in the state Legislature that call for comprehensive sex education, including information about contraceptives, may change that.

Realizing that teenage pregnancies and births are on the rise, Edwards said the district has been keeping tabs on several programs identified by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies as effective.

District officials are in the middle of drafting a new health education curriculum because of a recent state standards update, she said.

“There are a couple of bills, called the Healthy Teens Act, addressing the issue of abstinence,” Edwards said. “That could change our approach to what we are doing right now.”

Dr. Gladys Branic, director of the Manatee County Health Department, said escalating teen pregnancy is a huge social concern.

Teenagers may not be adept at taking care of the needs of their children, she said. The risks rises as a teen mom give birth to a second child.

“It’s a concern in Manatee County, of young children having children,” she said.

It could be a vicious cycle that impacts schools and the criminal justice system, Branic said.

And teens who are engaging in unprotected sex are also susceptible to contracting sexually transmitted infections and diseases.

“The values are different today,” Branic observed.

“When I was growing up, it was an embarrassment,” she said. “Now, they boast about it. It’s a different mind set.”

Some of the teens get pregnant to compensate for other things, Edwards said.

“There is this need in the kids to own something and the babies are theirs,” she said. “That means a lot of them are missing something in their lives.”

Brown said she thinks there should be programs focusing on boys and that religion should be put aside when dealing with sex education.

But family and religious values must be taken into consideration when tackling the issue, said Walter Miller, school board chairman.

“You can’t take religion out of the issue, it’s part of the core, it’s important in the decision-making process,” he said.

Sylvia Lim, education reporter, can be reached at 745-7041.