Seward County's high teen-pregnancy rate — number one in the state — is a community problem, not just an issue for USD 480. Look for more articles soon to learn what school board members, educators and community leaders have to say about the situation.
Too many teens already sexually active
By RACHEL coleman
• Leader & Times
“Get Real,” an abstinence-only program presented to the USD No. 480 School Board at the April meeting, may have merits — but it doesn’t reflect the reality at Liberal’s middle and high schools.
That’s the conclusion a curriculum review committee reached after considering Get Real’s five-day, seminar-style curriculum as a supplement to the district’s current program.
“We do want (students) to be abstinent; that is our 100 percent, number-one message,” Michele Hay, a USD 480 nurse and member of the review committee, said. “But even as we’re telling kids to say ‘no’ to premarital sex, I think you can’t neglect the ones who have already said ‘yes.’”
According to national figures collected by the Centers for Disease Control, 47 percent of American teens say they have engaged in sexual intercourse at least once. While no numbers are available for Liberal, Hay said it’s reasonable to assume local teens have followed the national trend.
“With Seward County having the highest pregnancy rate in the state of Kansas, it’s obvious they’re having sex,” she said.
When teenagers have made that choice, she said, “Our responsibility is to offer the full picture. If a student is brave enough to ask (a question) once, you better have a good, responsible, knowledgable answer because they might never ask it again.”
Abstinence-only programs tend to gloss over questions about contraception, Hay said, and presenters might not be prepared to handle specific questions that venture beyond virginity to sexual behavior:
“I’m not talking about Get Real specifically, but I’ve seen that a lot of times those program presenters cannot talk outside of the abstinence topic. It’s abstinence only, and that’s it,” she said.
In addition, she said research shows “that (abstinence-only programs) fail to change sexual behavior in teens, contain misleading or distorted information about reproductive health, specifically conveying false information about effectiveness of contraceptives, religious belief as fact, stereotypes about boys and girls as scientific fact, and medical and scientific errors.”
Director of curriculum Lana Evans said she doesn’t have a complaint about Get Real.
“I’m not going to say there’s false information in that program,” she said, “but in general, programs like that are not always a good fit for the district. I’ll be honest — two years ago, we did a study about this, and asked, ‘How much can we address? What philosophy do we want to take?’” The district concluded it should cover “all areas of health,” she said — and that means more than abstinence.
As for the strengths of Get Real — an emphasis on strong relationship skills and a long-term view of life goals and values — the district has those topics covered, Evans said.
“What we have is comprehensive,” she said. “It covers communication skills, dating, how to build healthy relationships, how to identify safe and unsafe situations … there’s a lot of good information in there.”
Speaking at Monday’s board meeting, health education director Sandy Baker agreed.
“I know when I talk, it’s about making smart choices, healthy choices, refusal skills, giving them the message that there are other things you can do besides engaging in sexual activity. A lot of that is covered,” she said.
In addition, Baker said she’s “a little leery of someone coming in with a five-day program.” Past presenters from SAFE (Sexuality and Family Education, a United Way agency in Seward County) gave students “a lot of bad information, wrong information,” Baker recalled. “We didn’t want them to come back.”
Hay shared further concerns about visiting speakers.
“Teenagers need adults they can access who are confidential, who can answer a question that pops up, maybe two weeks after a program,” she said. “It’s important to have a consistent presence. You need a person you can form a relationship of trust with in the schools, because those are dicey issues.”
That’s why the district re-evaluated its program three years ago, Hay noted, “and purchased new textbooks with supplemental workbooks that cover this type of education. We take this approach because it is our responsibility to provide a health education that prepares them for life-long lessons including sexual health. Although we do not want them to be sexually active at this stage in life, at some point they will be and need to have all the information to make informed decisions about how to do so responsibly.”
“I think we have a great curriculum there that allows us to pursue both avenues,” Baker said.
Hay said the real-life situations teenagers face today require that two-sided approach.
“We encourage abstinence,” she said, “but not ignorance.”