Behind the Scenes: the Sex Education Sequel

After the story How Much Do You Know About Sex received attention because the statistics showed some teens at Penn Manor High School are having unprotected sex, it seemed logical to follow that story with another, exploring why students are not using contraceptives.

Penn Manor freshmen students in Shawn Maxwell and Stephen Weidner’s health classes agreed to talk with Penn Points and give their personal opinions on why some students participate in the high-risk behavior of unprotected sex.

Shawn Maxwell's health class. Photo by Kendal Phillips on why some teens are engaging in sex while in high school, yet aren’t using protection.

The students agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, therefore the names of many students are not used in this article.

The most common answer to the question why some sexually active teens do not use contraception was, “They don’t think it will happen to them.”

The other repeated issue was access to contraception.

“People are bashful about [contraceptives] and would rather have unprotected sex,” said junior Leah Freeman.

“I know teens who don’t have jobs or money and their parents don’t give them money, so they don’t know what to do or how to get [contraceptives],” said one Penn Manor freshman.

Several teens who were interviewed said they don’t use or try to buy contraceptives because they don’t care, they don’t have transportation to purchase it or they are scared their parents will find out and they don’t want to talk to them about sex.

Other Penn Manor students said they do not receive enough sex education. They said they are taught about STDs and the male and female parts, but not enough about contraceptives or the consequences of sex and unprotected sex.

“They teach about sex but only in one lesson,” said one Penn Manor student, “they talk about getting pregnant and STD’s, but only briefly on birth control.”

“They just talk about having a baby,” said freshman Nick Young.

“You  can tell they don’t teach enough because of all the pregnancies and kids not using protection,” said junior Katie Coons.

Pregnancy rates among high school teens are on the rise again after years of decline. According to Time Magazine, in 2006 there were 21 births for every 500 U.S teens from 15-19 years of age, which is a rate more than three times the number in Canada. That may be why the federal government is reauthorizing two programs aimed at decreasing teen pregnancy and the rate of STD’s.

President Barack Obama recently signed a five-year, $250 million re-authorization  of sex education funding.  At the same time, the newly passed health care law provides $375 million over the same five years to promote more comprehensive approaches to sex education. This money will be available to public schools for funding Personal Responsibility Education and Abstinence Programs.

While some students are saying they don’t get enough sex education, Maxwell, the ninth grade health teacher, explained he does go into detail, as much as the curriculum allows.

“We talk about sexual anatomy to birth but not about parenting, and we also

Shawn Maxwell’s health class. Photo by Sarah Garner

talk about relationships, STD’s and birth control, but in a family-planning forum,” said Maxwell.

Recent statistics have pointed to the success of sex education in schools when it is combined with abstinence education.

In 1988, South Carolina passed the Comprehensive Health Education Act, which requires sexuality education from elementary school through high school, including at least 12.5 hours of “reproductive health and pregnancy prevention education” at some point during a student’s high school years.

Although their birthrates are high, South Carolinas comprehensive approach to sex education is credited with slowing that rate. It fell 27% from 1991 to 2006. In 2008, one school in South Carolina, using the comprehensive approach to sex education, had only two births to teen moms.

The study was widely used to show the effectiveness of sex education and abstinence education together.

It is not clear whether Penn Manor School District would take the federal funds for these types of sex education classes.

“Currently the state tells us what we must teach via the PA State Standards,” said Penn Manor Assistant Superintendent Ellen Pollock.  “PA does not require an abstinence-only sex education curriculum.

“I would not be interested in applying for any grant funding until we know the specifics of what the Personal Responsibility Education Program must look like,” added Pollock.  “Grants, especially federal and state grants, come with a lot of string and red tape and massive amounts of paperwork so I am extremely hesitant to deal with them.”

However, Maxwell said Penn Manor may want to consider the newly authorized programs for the students’ education.

“The only time kids talk about [sex] is in ninth grade,” said Maxwell about the school’s formal program, “after that they can only hear about it in electives such as child development.”

Within the five year re-authorization signed by Obama, the Abstinence Education Program will have as its exclusive purpose teaching social, psychological and health gains to abstain from sexual activity. It teaches that abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage is the expected standard for all students, and that abstaining from sexual activity outside of marriage is the only way to avoid pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and other health issues.

The program spotlights mutually faithful and monogamous relationships.

The Personal Responsibility Education Program encourages delaying sexual activity, increasing condom or contraceptive use for sexually active teens and reducing pregnancy among teens. It puts an emphasis on both abstinence and contraceptive use for the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases among teens. Activities are included to educate sexually active teens regarding responsible behavior.

Some Penn Manor students feel that more sex and abstinence education, such as these programs that could be available, will help them think about the consequences and options of protection when it comes to sex.

“I think we should try to take advantage of the money but no one will listen,” said a Penn Manor student, “hopefully it will make them realize that having sex doesn’t make you cool.”

“We should look into it so more people know what’s happening and what could happen,” said a Penn Manor freshman.

But not everyone is an advocate for more sex education at the high school level.

“I guess, but I wouldn’t take it,” said Young of the possibility of a sex education class being offered.

“I personally don’t wanna learn more about [sex or abstinence] because I feel like I know what I need to know,” said a Penn Manor student.

“I don’t think it’ll make a difference if they bring the programs to our school because everyone already thinks they know everything there is to know so they won’t care or want to listen,” said another Penn Manor student.

With Penn Manor students saying abstinence is not what teens are thinking about or care to think about, Bristol Palin, daughter of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, once agreed with these Penn Manor students.  She now says that abstinence is realistic for her personally. At age 19, she gave birth to her son in Dec of 2008.

“I don’t think anyone realizes how difficult it really is until you actually have a screaming baby in your arms and you’re up all night,” said Palin in a recent Associated Press interview, “I wasn’t prepared at all.”

Maxwell said he’d be willing to talk to students when they are not comfortable talking with anyone else.

“I’d be willing to talk to them about knowledge, not advice,” said Maxwell, “but I’ll always encourage them to talk to mom and dad for advice.”

By Sarah Garner and Kendal Phillips