Groups promote abstinency as means to prevent teen pregnancies
In Apr. 3-9 issue By Kim Graham Times Journal Reporter
CHILDREN HAVING CHILDREN
"Several years ago, you never heard of 12-year-olds dating," said Shirley Roberson, Health Educator for Lake Cumberland Regional Health Department's Russell County office.
"Kids have more independence now and are allowed to date at earlier ages."
More and more, this early independence is leading to early pregnancies. Sandy Ellis, director of Adair Russell Casey Pregnancy Center said when she last visited Russell County High School, there were 22 pregnant teens at the school.
She said there's even a 12-year-old in the county who is pregnant.
"Somebody's got to do something," Ellis said. "That's what we're doing here."
Youth Services in Russell County has a Teen Pregnancy Support Group that meets once each month. Ellis has been visiting speaker at some meetings and discusses parenting topics and other health issues related to teen pregnancy.
"They are doing a great job at the Youth Services Center by assisting teen moms," said Ellis. "They are very good with the kids and they've been very supportive of us."
Neighboring counties report similar issues with teen pregnancy.
The Adair County Schools Assistant Superintendent of Student Services, Brenda Mann, said there are three pregnant teens in their school system. Like many other local school systems, the age of the mothers is increasingly younger.
"We had a middle schooler last year," Mann said. "When it reaches middle school, I get really concerned."
Sources say Wayne County Schools have 25 confirmed pregnant students so far this school year.
An official who asked for anonymity said most of the time the pregnant teens' parents aren't that upset and many of the teens' mothers were teen moms themselves.
In each of the last three years, there have been one or two pregnant students in Wayne County Middle School, with some as young as 12 years old.
Cumberland County School Superintendent, John Hurt said they don't have any students reporting confirmed pregnancy this school year.
"It's not that teen pregnancy hasn't been a problem," said Hurt. "We even had one in middle school and that shocked all of us. We just happen to be having a better year than some other years."
Steve Sweeney, Casey County Youth Services Center Coordinator, said he's found abstinence based programs to be almost totally ineffective. He said Casey county schools have 11 pregnant teenagers in attendance including an unprecedented four middle school students.
"I've been doing this job for 17 years," said Sweeney. "Abstinence education was valiant effort with the best of intentions but we need to take a drastically different approach to prevention of teen pregnancy. We need to teach kids about prevention."
Abstinence education supporters defend the programs. They blame the rise of teen pregnancy on a break down in family values and a lack of discipline as well as mass media's portrayal of sexuality in the culture.
"There is a total lack of bringing up kids from the get go," said Ellis.
"There's no discipline at home, in daycare or in schools. Society has tied our hands."
Some experts believe apathy has taken over in much of today's parenting leaving kids to learn from their environment.
"Today's kids are a product of society," said Ellis. "Look at what you see on TV and in magazines."
Some contend that a contraceptive only message treats the symptom and not the cause.
"The attitude that abstinence doesn't work is wrong," Ellis said. "It's unfair not to give it a chance."
Ellis contends, even after becoming sexually active at a young age, kids can choose abstinence.
"It's never too late," said Ellis. "Let's give them a chance to have a second chance at abstinence."
Roberson agrees that abstinence is the best prevention and she teaches kids they can choose abstinence even after losing their virginity.
"We talk to the kids about sexual responsibility, consequences and how to protect themselves but we also let them know that it's never to late to choose abstinence," said Roberson.
She says some kids are choosing to wait until marriage but some wonder that something is wrong with them if they're not having sex because it is so prevalent in society.
"Look at any TV show," said Roberson. "It's in their faces all the time." To face reality, Roberson says abstinence and prevention should be taught.
"The abstinence program is good but both sides should be taught including contraception," Roberson said. "I think you have blinders on if you think kids today are not having sex."
When there are 64 pregnant girls in Russell and the surrounding area school systems, it's pretty obvious. The numbers speak for themselves. "We need to give them more education than just safe sex education," said Ellis. "Many don't have self esteem and they don't think that life is going to get any better than it is."
A steady decrease in teen pregnancy of about 33% over 14 years until 2005, may have caused complacency among educators and that can be bad news for progress.
When teen pregnancy rates go down each year we think we've solved the issue so the same programs are continued.
"We have to step up to the plate as parents," said Roberson. "We need to be able to say, my child may not make all the right decisions but I'm going to keep the lines of communication open with my child so they have the facts and they feel comfortable talking to me."
Roberson teaches an abstinence based program called Worth the Wait that is offered as early as 6th grade but taught mostly in 7th and 8th grades with parental consent.
Kenny Pickett, Russell Springs Middle School Principal, says the health department teaches programs to students, with parental consent, at the middle school once or twice a year.
"The schools are really good about offering the services of the health department," said Roberson. "We have principals who let us in the schools and concerned teachers and coaches who support and request our programs."
The three day program covers puberty in general, changes in body, the rewards of abstinence, how alcohol and drug use contributes to the decision to have sex, the consequences of early age pregnancy and the difference between love and infatuation.
The focus is on age appropriate activities including role playing how to handle real life situations.
"We encourage self esteem and self worth, to walk away from sexual advances," Roberson said. "Just saying no doesn't work. We do role playing in the classes to help them plan how to react if they are caught in a compromising situation."
Roberson says the health department also offers a program called Changes to third and fourth graders at the school's request, but only with parental consent.
The prepubescent program is an introduction to physical and emotional changes in their bodies. It's a basic puberty class in age appropriate format.
"Girls are menstruating earlier now," said Roberson. "There are third graders starting their periods nowadays."
"We stress abstinence especially in elementary schools," said Roberson. Letters are sent home with the kids to their parents after they attend these programs. The letters ask parents to discuss the materials and reinforce the classes. Sometimes this exchange opens up the communication between parents and their children.
"I'm on the preventative side of what the health department offers," said Roberson. "Education is truly the key. With the facts, kids are better able to make good decisions."
She says kids get misinformation from peers, media and TV - not facts, just myths. She meets many kids who can't even correctly identify reproductive body parts.
"We have not come very far in solving the problem of teen pregnancy," Roberson said.
Parents want to leave sex education up to the schools she says.
Roberson says parents are very willing to sign permission forms consenting for their children to participate in health department programs.
There seems to be a major break down in communication between parents and children.
"We are not raising our children," said Ellis. "Someone else is raising them."
Roberson says some parents do call for additional information about the classes and they send them an information package that helps them address issues age appropriately. She said those parents are the exception, not the rule.
"There is no definitive answer in sight other than prevention," said Roberson. "We are helping kids to learn about their bodies early and helping them learn about the services that are available."
One way of making sure to keep the programs fresh is to talk with the teenagers themselves.
Parents and educators, who maintain open communication, are in a position to answer more questions by taking a personal interest in kids lives.
While experts agree that it's unclear what may be causing the increase in teen pregnancy, these findings are a call to action for society to join the fight to prevent teen pregnancy.
Although there are differing opinions on program content, the programs should be continually studied to make sure they are up-to-date and working in the education of teenagers on the problems of teen pregnancy.
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