Volunteers provided by Tupelo’s Parkgate Pregnancy Clinic are teaching the abstinence-based sex education courses in seventh- and eighth-grade science classes at TMS. They also have taught the five-day course in other Lee County schools this fall in response to a new state law that requires all Mississippi school districts to offer sex education courses.
The law mandates districts to teach either an abstinence-only or an abstinence-plus curriculum. Both Tupelo and Lee County school districts opted for abstinence-only.
Abstinence-plus gives districts more leeway to teach about birth control and effectiveness rates.
Even before the new law, volunteers from Parkgate’s MPower program have taught the course to seventh-graders at TMS for the past four or five years. This year, Principal Kristy Luse asked them also to teach it to the eighth-graders.
“We wanted them to continue to follow through as they matured and had more questions,” Luse said of why she expanded the class. “I like the fact that our community members are here helping with the classes. It encourages them to be present and support students at such a pivotal age.”
The MPower volunteers also have been to Plantersville Middle, Mooreville Middle and High, Shannon Middle and High and Guntown Middle and to Tupelo High health classes. The program uses a Wait Training curriculum purchased by Parkgate from the Center for Relationship Education in Colorado.
Parkgate Executive Director Jima Alexander said the main message of the program, which it offers schools for free, is that the teens’ lives are important.
“What you do today affects your future,” she said. “We want you to recognize and reach your goals in life. What are things that can prevent you from reaching your goals? We talk about teenage sexual relationships and the possible consequences, such as teenage pregnancy and STDs.”
One class is devoted entirely to STDs, Alexander said, and another teaches the biology of how the female body becomes pregnant. Instructors also talk about emotions that go along with teenage sexual relationships, Alexander said.
Community volunteers – from business leaders to parents to church ministers – teach the lessons. Parents must grant permission for their children to attend the class, and boys and girls are divided into separate rooms for the discussion. Participation rates ranged from 90 to 95 percent at the various schools, Alexander said.
“The benefit was it exposed a lot of myths students thought they knew about sex and female and male bodies that are not true and told them that the things that can happen to them are real,” said Shannon Middle School Principal Keith Steele. “I heard a lot of kids saying, ‘I didn’t know that.’”
Steele conducted an informal, anonymous survey of his students after the class. “There were several kids who said they wished they had known this information a year earlier and that they had waited,” he said.
Critics of the abstinence-only classes say they do not go far enough to curb teenage pregnancy. They say that teens also should be informed about contraceptives.
Jamie Bardwell, director of programs for the Women’s Fund of Mississippi, said teens are more likely to abstain from sex if they are given information about both abstinence and contraception. She said 47 percent of Mississippi school districts chose an abstinence-plus curriculum.
“Giving young people medically accurate information about contraception does not make them more likely to become sexually active,” she said.
Alexander said students do ask questions about birth control in the MPower classes, but instructors emphasize the importance of abstinence.
“People will say we don’t want you to be sexually active, but if you are, use birth control,” Alexander said. “They don’t think about how it affects you emotionally, how you are still at risk for STDs and how birth control is not 100 percent effective against pregnancy.”