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Some States Are Finally Moving Towards More Comprehensive Sex Ed Programs

Teen pregnancy nationwide is on the decline, but that drop doesn’t translate across the board for every state. West Virginia, ranked 8th in the nation for highest rates of teen pregnancy, saw a spike around 2006 and has begun moving towards a more comprehensive way of teaching sex education in an effort to curb the trend.

“Out of every eight babies born in West Virginia, one is born to a teen mother -- that’s crazy," Selina Vickers a state health coordinator told PBS. Vickers is part of a team working to improve West Virginia’s sex education curriculum and help remove the teen pregnancy factor that contributes to a cycle of poverty which plagues many in the state.

Vickers is training teachers in a more comprehensive program that’s been adopted by other states across the U.S., known as Flash. Unlike many sex education programs of the past, the program covers not just an abstinence-only approach, but also consent, different forms of birth control, STDs, sexual abuse and sexual orientation.

West Virginia is one of 35 states that receives federal funds through Department of Health grants that started in the 1980s to promote abstinence-only sex education. Abstinence-only programs have shown to have little impact on teen pregnancy in states like West Virginia and Texas, which also has one of the highest teen birth rates in the nation.

Fifty-eight percent of Texas school districts currently teach an abstinence-only sex education, with critics pointing to the state’s ranking of 5th in the nation for teen pregnancy as a result. “I’m not really sure why we’re so worried about a trained classroom teacher, who is a trusted adult to those students, standing in the front of the room talking about condoms and other forms of birth control,” David Wiley, a health education professor at Texas State University said in an interview. “Yet these students carry around a computer in their pocket all day and with two clicks of a mouse they can watch the most explicit sexual content imaginable.”

Like West Virginia, Texas is slowly making an effort to change its approach to sex ed in the classroom. State Rep. Mary Gonzalez, a Democrat, is hoping to spur that change and introduced a bill back in February that she says is “commons sense” sexual education. The bill would require classrooms to teach evidence-based, and medically accurate information on everything from STDs to birth control and pregnancy.

"We say we don't want abortion but we're also not providing sex education that will limit teen pregnancy," Gonzalez told KVUE. "If we know we have a problem in Texas with STIs and teen pregnancy, don't we have the obligation to have the conversation about whether or not our sex education curriculum is working?" she added.

While many parents believe that the issue of sex should be taught at home and not by the schools, Wiley says that this only contributes to a cycle of misinformation. Addressing the press Wiley said, “most people in this room probably did not have a really good talk with their parents about sexual health, because your parents didn’t have a very good talk with their parents about sexual health.” It’s asking parents to do something that they may not be well trained at that Wiley and Vickers say needs to be rectified.

Vickers regularly trains teachers and administrators in West Virginia how to take a more comprehensive approach and address student concerns. Everything from peer pressure to dating violence and how to address a student when asked how they’ll know when they’re ready to enter a sexual relationship, is covered.

West Virginia is making strides in its sex education with school districts like that of McDowell County offering an after-school elective sex ed program called “Teen Talk.” Still, there are school administrators in the state who believe abstinence is the only method that should be taught. “With contraceptives and condoms and so forth, I think it’s an encouragement. You know, it’s a green light that this is possible without bearing children,” Dave Perry, a teacher and principal for 35 years, told PBS.

For the parents of students who became teen parents like Brandy Surratt, who has helped raise her granddaughter since her daughter Kirsten got pregnant at 14, more needs to be done. “You’re not going to change a teenager’s hormones no matter how much you preach. It’s not going to work, because teenagers are hormonal, and things happen,” Surratt said.

 

Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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