As the pregnancy rate for teens in Schenectady County remains high, at least one Schenectady school board member would like to explore whether the abstinence-based sex education curriculum should be updated.
Cheryl Nechamen, who pushed for the district to change its opt-in policy so more children would take sex education, believes sex education is an important part of lowering the area’s teen pregnancy rate. Her change was passed last fall, and at the same time Nechamen noticed the sex education curriculum was last updated in the 1990s.
“We looked at the curriculum and said, ‘It looks kind of outdated now,’” she recalled. She’d like the district to review the program “to make sure that we’re really teaching what we want to be taught.”
Schenectady County’s teenage pregnancy rate has been high for years. In the most recent figures released by the state Department of Health, for 2009, its pregnancy rate topped those in Albany, Saratoga and Schoharie counties.
Compared with Fulton and Montgomery counties, Schenectady’s rate was higher for girls ages 15 to 17 but lower for teens aged 18 and 19.
Those figures show that 32.9 girls per 1,000 aged 15 to 17 got pregnant in Schenectady County in 2009. For teens ages 18 and 19 the figure was 94 per 1,000.
Schenectady City School District officials say abstinence is the best policy, but a health teacher acknowledges that no matter what they learn in school, some teens can’t resist the strong pressures on the outside — from peers, from music, movies and now even a reality show about teen mothers.
“Some kids just bow to it and don’t know how to react to it,” said Meribeth Byrne, a middle school health teacher.
From Byrne’s 10-year experience teaching sex education — the district’s program is called Family Life — most of the middle-schoolers she sees haven’t had sex, and many of them are completely naive about it.
Still, a few have had some sexual experience, including some negative consequences.
“Some kids really know a lot about [sexually transmitted infections] because of experience that they have or in their family.”
A few middle-schoolers get pregnant, though not many.
According to the Health Department, six children between ages 10 and 14 in Schenectady County got pregnant in 2009.
Byrne thinks the girls who got pregnant did understand about sex and how to get pregnant.
“I don’t believe it’s ignorance, to be honest with you,” she said. “They’ve all been taught the subject matter, so I think the biggest influence is what happens when they leave school.”
The district teaches abstinence from all sexual contact, not just intercourse, because some sexually transmitted infections can be spread through oral and anal sex.
“We talk about things like how to show affection appropriately,” Byrne said.
In seventh grade, Family Life is a structured 18-day program in the 20-week health class; high-schoolers also take sex education in health class, usually during 10th grade. In high school, the program has more flexibility, with teachers developing their own unit and possibly changing it, depending on what students want to talk about, Byrne said.
Seventh-grade teachers spend about half the unit teaching about puberty and the reproductive system, the male and female anatomy, fertilization and the embryonic and fetal growth stages.
They talk about contraception methods for one class period.
“We do not display anything; we do not do any demonstrations” at either the middle school or high school levels, Byrne said.
High-schoolers explore sex education at a higher level, talking more about the consequences of having sex. Pregnancy is more common among high school-aged girls, with 105 girls ages 15 to 17 in Schenectady County getting pregnant in 2009, according to the state Department of Health. Among 18- and 19-year-olds, the figure was 204. About half of all teen pregnancies ended in abortion, the state DOH says.
In general, teen pregnancy is higher in the counties that have larger cities. “It’s just the nature of growing up in the city,” Byrne said.
“A lot of the kids might not have the home base that they really need to help them out.” Some of the focus in the sex education program is on having a support system, especially trusted adults.
“Unfortunately, a lot of students don’t have that.”
Then again, it’s not new that teens are having sex; perhaps it’s just more visible today because of TV shows that talk frankly about sex, and casual conversations that people have, Byrne said. “Back when I was young, nobody ever really talked about it.”
Planned Parenthood also offers an in-school enrichment program on abstinence and contraception at no cost to school districts, but Schenectady schools have never invited the organization in, said district spokeswoman Karen Corona.
The program recently generated controversy in nearby Shenendehowa Central School District. A group of parents lobbied for the long-running program to be removed from schools, and it was. Then people on the other side of the fence, including parents, current and former students and community members, objected to the program’s removal.
Schenectady has talked about the Planned Parenthood program, Byrne said.
“We have had many discussions about Planned Parenthood coming in,” she said.
But the Schenectady district hasn’t used Planned Parenthood because of the organization’s controversial nature. Some people oppose Planned Parenthood because some of its clinics perform abortions.
The organization also offers testing and treatment for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases for women and men, annual gynecological exams for women, birth control and pregnancy tests.
And it offers sex education information for parents to share with their children, and for teens to view themselves, at www.plannedparenthood.org/ppmh.
The Schenectady district last fall changed its policy from an “opt-in” policy to an “opt-out” policy, meaning that in the past, parents had to sign a form if they wanted their children to take part in the sex education classes. Now they have to sign if they want their children to be excluded from the class.
“That took effect for the high school this year,” Nechamen said, adding middle and elementary school parents will see the change next school year.
Nechamen pushed for the change because she didn’t want children to miss the information because their parents forgot to sign a form.
“We wanted to make sure that the kids got the information,” she said.
For its part, the state Department of Education requires schools to teach about HIV/AIDS — how people contract it and how to prevent it by using latex condoms — but doesn’t require any other sex education teaching.
Schools can decide whether they want to teach sex education, said Education Department spokeswoman Jane Briggs. If they do, the state offers a suggested sex education curriculum.
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