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Teach your children well: Abstinence-only versus comprehensive sex ed, Part Two

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 16, 2008 - Students at Lutheran High School South receive abstinence-only education in both health and theology classes. "We're a Christian school," says Brian Ryherd, principal. "And that's what God said, so that's what we teach."

But his students aren't in the dark, he says. They learn about anatomy, human sexuality and morality as well. "It's not a simple no," Ryherd says. "It's not the whole 'just say no' thing. It's no, not now, here's why."

Ryherd isn't aware of many pregnancies at the school, but says his students struggle with the issue like any teenagers.

North County Christian School has no formal sex education program, says Tom Pflederer, a counselor. "It's a part of what happens with a more natural and normal conversation among students and teachers."

Those conversations occur in small groups, he says, one-on-one, and in discussions about the Bible, which offers chances to talk about other important issues, such as rape, incest and alcohol abuse. In his seven years at the school, he knows of no teen pregnancies.

And while abstinence-only programs come under fire, defenders point to studies that show they delay the onset of sexual activity, and that abstinence programs haven't been around long enough to provide definitive data.

Papa don't preach

Despite debate over what and how to talk to teens about sex, 69 percent of Americans surveyed thought sex education was an important part of the curriculum, according to a 2004 survey by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and 94 percent thought it appropriate to teach about birth control and methods to prevent pregnancy.

In St. Louis, educators are hearing the same thing.

"Actually, we're hearing from parents who say, 'Thank you for just making our children aware,'" says Paula Knight, executive director of curriculum for K-12 for the St. Louis public school district.

And in Clayton, health teacher Doris Smith says the school has a mandate from parents to teach comprehensive sex education. In a Web-based survey, 72 percent of parents felt it strongly important or important that the school promote abstinence as the best choice for preventing pregnancies, STDs and HIV. But even more parents -- 90 percent -- said it was important or very important that students learn about contraception; and 97 percent felt as strongly about how to reduce the risk of STDs.

Joanne Boulton is one of those parents. Her daughter, Alexa, is a junior at Clayton High School. "Knowledge is safety," Boulton says. "That's why we send our kids to school."

Regardless of their school's program, discussions about sexuality should start with parents, says Jessica Sheets, manager of communication programs with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

The biggest obstacle, like in the classroom, is communication. "I think that people don't want to talk about it," she says. "It isn't just teens who think it will never happen to them." 

More than nuts and bolts

These days, sex education programs aren't just about old-school birds and bees. Oakville, Clayton and St. Louis schools also include sections on the emotional affects of sex and decision making. Morality, marriage and relationships are also talked about at the private Christian schools.

"We do the why of it," Ryherd says. "The why really helps enforce the why not."

The component that's still missing is teaching students self-esteem, Knight says.

And another group that really needs some education are the educators, who are often uncomfortable and unsure of how to talk about sexuality, says Barb Anderson, who teaches family and consumer science at Oakville High School in South County.

"They just can't say the word penis without getting the heebie jeebies."

But a bill that passed last year means fewer resources for teachers, says Allison Hile, executive director for the Teen Pregnancy and Prevention Partnership in St. Louis. House bill 1055 mandates that people who offer abortions or references for abortion services can't speak to students. That includes nurses and many health educators, says Hile, who is certified with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists.

"We have a recipe for disaster in Missouri."

Lovely baby bump

Currently, Hile is working on a program to help schools assess their sex education programs and look at their data about the rate of pregnancies and STDs.

Most schools and districts interviewed said they didn't track numbers, but Knight says last year one high school in the city had 40 pregnancies. That number could be skewed, though, because an alternative school was closed and many girls no longer drop out.

Despite sitting through classes on abstinence and contraception, teenagers still live in a world where teens in Hollywood sport baby bumps, and that affect on teen is hard to counter, most educators agree. "The message that young women are getting is that it's a good thing to have a baby now," Hile says.

Knight agrees. Jamie Lynn Spears gets pregnant at 16, she says, "and she's on the cover of each of the magazines."

What kids don't see is the money, the nannies and the very not-true-to-life circumstances in which most teen celebrity moms live, says Sheets.

But teenagers aren't stupid, and most girls don't want to get pregnant, says Alexa Boulton. "I'm pretty sure most teenagers really understand what pregnancy is. It's not just a way to get attention. It's a serious responsibility." 

Still, it's hard to change what's out there, Knight says. "You can't do anything to change the mindset, but you can educate the kids."

"Much like parenting," she adds, "you guide your children and then when they go off on their own, you have to pray and hope that your child actually was listening."

Kristen Hare is a free-lance writer living in Lake St. Louis. 

Kristen Hare

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