Sexuality education likely doomed despite proven need
BY JANET PEARSON Associate Editor
Sunday, January 22, 2012
1/22/12 at 3:29 AM
The 7,581 births to Oklahoma teens in 2008 cost state taxpayers an estimated $190 million, according to a recent report. About a third of those births were to teens ages 17 or younger; 89 were to girls ages 10 to 14.
More than 20 percent of those births were to teens who already were mothers.
According to the report from the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, Oklahoma's teen birth rate for ages 15 to 19 is the fifth highest in the country. And for older teens - ages 18-19 - Oklahoma's birth rate is the second highest in the country.
As if that information isn't compelling enough to demonstrate something's wrong, consider this from the Oklahoma Health Care Authority: In 2010, SoonerCare, the state's Medicaid program, covered about 64 percent of all births in Oklahoma - 33,125 of the 51,799 total. Many of those new moms of course are teenagers; the rest are former teenagers who might have benefited from appropriate health and sexuality education.
"This is just so startling to me," says state Rep. Jeannie McDaniel, D-Tulsa. "Someone's paying for all of this, whether it's state or federal. It's all tax dollars. I just can't get my head around why people wouldn't rather educate and prevent these problems than deal with the consequences of unintended pregnancies, which go on forever."
McDaniel is once again pushing legislation that would put wide-ranging health, human development and sexuality education programs into public schools. But she knows what fate awaits her pursuit.
"The legislation would mandate it for school districts, and I know where this is going to end up. ... But this is my way of keeping these issues in the limelight, of keeping the discussion going."
McDaniel's bill, the "Healthy Students Act of 2012," would address not only sexuality education but other topics that are plaguing today's youth: resisting peer pressure; the dangers of the Internet; healthy relationships and dating violence; sexual abuse and sexual assault; the effects of drug and alcohol use; even the legal and ethical responsibilities of child care and child-rearing.
The legislation would require boards of education to provide "medically accurate and age-appropriate instruction" in grades one through 12 on various health subjects, including "human growth and development, sexual health, self-esteem, stress management, interpersonal relationships, domestic abuse prevention, (and) sexually transmitted diseases."
The measure has elements that ensure parental involvement and encourage communication between parents and children.
And, it would require that teaching materials inform students that abstinence from sex is the "only completely effective protection" against unintended pregnancy and STDs, "while not ignoring students who are or have been sexually active."
'Shame on us'
McDaniel might be idealistic, but she's not naive. She knows the argument that likely will torpedo her quest is the old mandate bugaboo. Indeed, House Speaker Kris Steele already has suggested the mandate aspect is problematic. "A concern with any issue is just the mandate and the funding. Not that it's not a good idea - it's just that any mandate has to be funded."
But McDaniel has a comeback for that argument.
"I don't know why they think more books, more courses, more classes are necessary," she said. "They make it harder than it has to be."
Some schools, she noted, have "embedded" health and sexuality instruction into existing courses, such as biology.
"Why does it have to be a separate book? How hard is it to teach elementary-school kids to cover their mouths when they sneeze and to wash their hands?" McDaniel added.
"We can't ignore the statistics that tell us how bad we're doing - bullying and dating violence and all of these things. This all goes back to courses in school that health education can be wrapped into. I throw this out there to demonstrate that this can be done. Shame on us that we have to mandate that these things be done."
McDaniel has plenty of evidence to back up her claims that such education not only is in society's best interests, but also strongly supported by parents.
A January report by the American School Health Association, the American Association for Health Education, and the National Education Association Health Information Network, details the rationale for such instruction. Among the findings of "National Sexuality Education Standards: Core Content and Skills, K-12":
The report cited polling data that show vast majorities of parents - more than 90 percent - support providing such instruction in the schools. Even large majorities of parents polled were in favor of instruction on sexual orientation issues and how to use and where to obtain contraceptives.
- Each year in the U.S. more than 750,000 teens ages 15-19 become pregnant, and more than 80 percent of the pregnancies are unintended. Teens contract about half of the 19 million sexually transmitted diseases reported annually. "This equates to one in four sexually active teenagers contracting a sexually transmitted disease each year."
- Ten percent of teens are physically harmed by a boyfriend or girlfriend each year. Nine out of 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender teens reported being harassed in 2008; two-thirds of these students reported feeling unsafe and a third skipped school because of fears over personal safety.
- Teens who received comprehensive sexuality education were 50 percent less likely to become pregnant than those receiving abstinence-only instruction.
- Teens who do not engage in "health-risk behaviors" receive higher grades than classmates who do engage in such behavior. And, physical and emotional health-related problems that plague teens may inhibit learning, reduce motivation to learn, and contribute to absenteeism and dropping out.
I had a pretty good education in public schools, but I have to admit, contrary to what we were told, that I've never in my adult life actually needed to use the quadratic formula. Nor have I had occasion to calculate the area of a parallelogram. Yet we make our kids learn that kind of stuff in school.
But learning how to stand up to bullying and abuse? How to say no to a boyfriend? How to resist the temptations of drugs and alcohol? How to avoid debilitating and serious health conditions? What's involved in child care? Now that's information a kid can use.
"If folks really want to end abortions and unintended pregnancies, we need to focus on health education and equip our young people with the knowledge and basics to make healthy choices," said McDaniel. "And our public education system may be the last time one has access to such instruction."
But instead of focusing on steps that would make Oklahoma a healthier and safer place, state leaders are focusing on how to slash the tax revenue that could help accomplish such goals. McDaniel challenged this contingent to step up themselves to help solve the problems that they feel government cannot or should not take on:
"When every room of their house is full of foster kids that their parents won't raise, then come talk to me."
Original Print Headline: Healthy students? Probably not
Janet Pearson 918-581-8328