Tulsa County’s teen birth rate fell by more than 30% the past five years, two years earlier than the goal of a local nonprofit established to prevent teenage pregnancies.
The county’s birth rate in 2018 was 24.2 per 1,000 females ages 15-19 years. That rate is down 35% from 37.2 in 2013, according to recent state government data.
The Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in 2014 set out to lower the rate 30% by 2020.
“Now as much as we would like to praise the community for this wonderful accomplishment, our teen birth rate is still higher than the national average,” said Amber McConnell, executive director of the Tulsa Campaign. “We still have a lot of work to do in this area.”
Tulsa County at 24.2 is below Oklahoma’s rate of 27.1 but much higher than the preliminary U.S. rate of 17.4. The state ranked No. 48 nationally in 2017, up one spot from No. 49 a year beforehand.
McConnell said Tulsa County is lowering its teen birth rate faster than the U.S. but is notably hamstrung by a lack of state-level support and funding.
“We are one of the only states in the nation that does not currently have a sex education policy,” McConnell said. “And each school gets to decide what, if anything, is taught to youth. That is a barrier we have that many states don’t.”
Omare Jimmerson, social services coordinator for Tulsa Public Schools, said that creates a situation in which there is no guarantee what a district may disseminate is medically accurate or research-based.
“A lot of times you find in different districts people spreading non-factual information,” she said.
In 2014, TPS went districtwide with prevention education for seventh- and ninth-graders, Jimmerson said. The district in 2017 launched Strong Tomorrows to give expectant or parenting students guidance, support and information.
She highlighted one of the program’s successes that began with a male student who dropped out of school for a year. Facing the reality of being a teen parent, he reached back out to be re-enrolled in an alternative setting to better fit his circumstances.
Perseverance and the parenting program paid off. His young family got a sneak peek of the Gathering Place prior to its opening, and he ended up being hired on the spot for a job, Jimmerson said. Since then he has been promoted twice and is now studying at Tulsa Community College.
“There was several times where we almost gave up on him again, just for lack of attending school,” Jimmerson said.
McConnell, who has been with the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy since the year’s start, credited community partnerships — like that with TPS — for driving down teen pregnancies.
To continue the downward trajectory, McConnell wants to bolster outreach efforts to parents of teens.
“We know through our last polling information that almost half of parents are still very uncomfortable talking to youth about reproductive health,” she said.
The group’s role is to ensure there is coordination among partner agencies, training for sex educators and implementation in schools. It hopes to improve health and economic well-being through teen pregnancy reductions.
But soon the Tulsa Campaign will undergo a rebranding to expand its scope toward promoting healthy relationships for youth rather than only sex education and contraception.
McConnell said the group also wants to teach about consent and dangers of the digital age, such as sexting or exposing too much in an image.
“That healthy relationship piece is huge,” McConnell said.
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