By Chris Kieffer
More Mississippi teenagers are having sex than their peers in other states.
They’re also having more babies.
Reducing that number, experts say, must involve education about the risks of those behaviors. That includes providing information to school children.
“Students are going to make choices on their own,” said Interim State Superintendent of Education Lynn House. “We can not be with them 24/7 to tell them the choices they are going to make. But we need to at the least give them clear, correct information.”
Mississippi’s Legislature passed a law in 2011 requiring all school districts to offer sex-education courses. Districts have the option of choosing either an abstinence-only or an abstinence-plus curriculum. The latter gives districts more leeway to teach about birth control. Neither allows for condom demonstrations.
The 2011 Centers of Disease Control and Prevention behavioral risk factor survey found 57.9 percent of Mississippi high school students reported having had sex, compared with 47.4 percent of their peers in other states. It also found 11.8 percent of Mississippi high school students reported having had sex before age 13, compared to 6.2 percent nationally.
Mississippi’s teenage birth rate in 2011 was 50.2 births for every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19. That ranked 49th nationally, barely ahead of Arkansas’ 50.7.
The question is whether sex education classes can impact those statistics. Are teenagers impressionable enough to change behavior based on what they learn in those sessions? And if so, what should be taught?
“You have to talk about the repercussions of teenagers having children,” said former Mississippi Secretary of State Dick Molpus, who still serves as an advocate for public education. “A lot of it is that teenagers a lot of times can’t see that far into the future. But you talk about it to them.”
More than 92 percent of Mississippi parents supported the teaching of sex education at an age-appropriate level in the state’s public school system, according to a survey conducted by Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center. The survey was commissioned by the Center for Mississippi Health Policy shortly after the new law was passed.
Parents also were asked about specific topics they would like to see included in the curriculum. Nearly all of them supported teaching the benefits of abstinence (96 percent), as well as teaching birth control methods (90 percent). About 72 percent supported condom demonstrations.
“The effectiveness of sex education depends on a variety of factors,” said Jamie Bardwell, director of programs at The Women’s Fund of Mississippi. “Just having sex ed does not mean it is going to change any behaviors.”
The key, Bardwell said, is using a curriculum that has been proven to change behaviors and using trained teachers. She advocates for abstinence-plus policies.
The heart of the debate over sex education in Mississippi’s public schools is whether teens should be told how to use birth control. Last year, 81 school districts chose the abstinence-only model and 71 used abstinence-plus. Two used a combination.
Most of the abstinence-plus districts were located in the Mississippi Delta – where teenage births also are higher – but every congressional district in the state has each model.
Both sides have strong advocates.
Mississippi First, an education advocacy organization, has worked with the State Department of Health to develop the Creating Healthy and Responsible Teens initiative. It works with participating school districts to increase adoption of abstinence-plus policies and provides free resources and training to districts in the highest needs counties.
Funding comes from a $2 million grant the state received under a provision of the Affordable Care Act designed to support teen-pregnancy prevention.
Thirty-four districts have adopted the CHART Policy, including Oxford and Houston in Northeast Mississippi. It uses two curricula – “Draw the Line, Respect the Line” for sixth- to eighth-grade students and “Reducing the Risk” for ninth-graders.
Sanford Johnson, deputy director of Mississippi First, said each was chosen because research has shown them effective for reducing teenage pregnancy.
Among their primary objectives, he said, is helping students to be able to set and communicate their own boundaries and to delay sexual relationships as long as possible.
That said, there are three types of students, Johnson said. That includes those who have not had sex and will abstain until they are married or in a long-term relationship, those who are not sexually active but will become so before marriage and those who already are sexually active.
“You need a policy that addresses all of their needs,” Johnson said.
“For those waiting, you need to encourage them to keep waiting as long as they can. For those who are sexually active or will become so, they need medically accurate information, they need to be able to set boundaries, they need to be able to communicate to their partner and be able to see when someone else is setting boundaries. Abstinence-plus is the only way to address that for all students.”
On the other side of the debate is Tupelo’s Parkgate Pregnancy Clinic, which has been teaching abstinence-only sex education in Tupelo for about five years. Since the new law was passed, it has spread its MPower program to at least one school in the Lee County, Itawamba County, Amory, Chickasaw County and Pontotoc County school districts.
Private giving to the faith-based organization allows it to teach its WAIT Training curriculum at no cost to participating schools. It also funds instructors from the community to lead the lesson. Its curriculum is not religious.
Jill West, Parkgate’s director of community development, said it describes the risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
“When you think about contraceptives, the only thing you think about is pregnancy,” West said. “We have to think about, and what we teach, is the negative consequences of STDs, not to mention the emotional effects that having premarital sex can have on a young person. No contraceptive can prevent any of those things.”
Parkgate Executive Director Jima Alexander said MPower aims to postpone a student’s first sexual experience as long as possible. For those who are already sexually active, it emphasizes what it calls “secondary virginity.”
“At any point in time, you can choose to stop and you can make that change and turn your life around,” West said. “We really talk about that and stress that. You can start all over with a clean slate.”
Alexander said they have received “stacks of letters” from students who have completed the program and said “they want a clean slate and want to start all over again.” She said abstinence shouldn’t be taught as if students are missing out on something, but instead as a “risk-avoidance behavior.”
In the conservative South, school chiefs also face political pressures in choosing which of the curricula to adopt. Tupelo Schools Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction Leigh Mobley, whose district uses an abstinence-only curriculum, said the structure of the law leads some districts to take that option.
The law details what districts may teach in sex-education classes. Abstinence-only districts can chose from that list, while abstinence-plus districts must include every component.
“If you do abstinence-only, you can choose some of those indicators, but you don’t have to do them all,” Mobley said. “If you do abstinence-plus, you have to do every one of them. Most districts are not going to choose that because it gives them less leeway in how they produce their program.”
Bardwell said she does not feel it is coincidence the abstinence-plus policy is more restrictive to districts. She believes that was the intention of conservative lawmakers.
Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks said his district chose an abstinence-only curriculum to “err on the side of caution.”
“We are going to advocate abstinence,” he said. “We are not going to enter into the realm of what you do if you decide to become sexually active. We feel that is a subject best handled by the parent. We don’t want to take the place of the parent in that situation.”
Shannon High School senior Alivia Roberts recently addressed a Tupelo town hall meeting focused on reducing teenage pregnancy. Roberts, who spoke in her role as Miss Tupelo Outstanding Teen, said she does not remember much from her classroom sex-education lessons, which she took before the new law was passed.
She said schools should make those lessons more engaging.
“If the school is going to have a big impact in teaching sex education, there should be opportunities in the curriculum for students to engage in age-appropriate communication and hands-on classroom activities and outside activities that encourage critical thinking and feedback,” she said.