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Talking about the birds and the bees

March 08, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Public schools teach today's boys and girls what they likely will face, physically and mentally, as men and women.

"Sex education" lessons in Tri-State schools cover more than just sexual reproduction. Students discuss self-esteem, relationships and values, for example.

That's in addition to lessons about male and female genitalia, sexually transmitted diseases, contraception and conception, among other topics.

In Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, local lessons are based on state standards.

West Virginia does not point to either abstinence or birth control as the lone ideal, said Rebecca King, an HIV/AIDS coordinator in the state's Department of Education.

"We just get the education out there and let the children make their own choices," she said.

Individual counties in West Virginia may label abstinence as the safest approach, but they still must teach the full curriculum, including birth control, King said.

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Beverly Hughes, associate superintendent of schools in Jefferson County, W.Va., declined to go into detail about her school system's curriculum. "We cover what the state requires," she said.

Health educators in Washington County and Franklin County, Pa., said their lessons stress abstinence as the best way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

But children need to hear about birth control, too, said Molly Harned, who teaches eighth-grade health at J. Frank Faust Junior High School in Chambersburg, Pa., "because eighth- and ninth-graders are getting pregnant."

Pennsylvania Department of Health statistics show that 151 females 15 to 19 years old gave birth in Franklin County in 2002 and one mother was younger than 15.

Other Tri-State counties had mothers equally young in 2002.

In the 15-to-17-year-old mother group, the three counties in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle had a combined 82 births.

Washington County had 76 births in that group - compared to 58 births in substantially larger Frederick County, Md.

As a social stopgap, the implications of sex education may be deep. Washington County Health Officer William Christoffel said it's not a coincidence that Frederick County, with a lower teen birth rate, has a higher rate of students attending college and a lower poverty rate.

Despite the county's sex education curriculum, Washington County's teen pregnancy rate has not fallen like the national and state rates.

The national rates in the 15-to-17-year-old and the 18-and-19-year-old categories have dropped every year since 1993. Maryland's rates have dropped noticeably over that time, too.

But Washington County's rate bounces up and down year to year, well above the federal and state rates.

"I wish I knew how to pinpoint a cause," Christoffel said.

Strong education - not just sex education - might curtail teen pregnancy, he said. Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan's high standard for education breeds higher expectations in parents, community members and students, Christoffel said.

Too many girls in Washington County, he said, "have no concept of doing anything beyond 12th grade but get married and get pregnant. Generation after generation before them has done that."

Students in Washington County start learning certain concepts - for example, relationships - in lower elementary grades, but it's not until fifth grade that they need parental consent to participate.

That's when instruction on reproductive systems begins, said Edward Masood, the school system's supervisor of arts, health and physical education/athletics. Lessons cover topics such as physical and emotional maturation, human reproduction and the birth process.

Students in the older grades learn advanced physiology and psychology of human sexual behavior, Masood said.

Parents may exempt children from discussions in grades five and six. In grades seven, eight and 10, the opposite applies - parents must give consent for students to participate.

Sandra Graff, supervisor of secondary science and chairwoman of the committee that sets the school system's curriculum, said the lowest participation rate across the county last year was 98.6 percent for seventh grade.

About 40 Smithsburg Middle School boys listened one recent afternoon as teacher Dennis Talbert explained sperm, semen and circumcision. He quizzed them on the difference between an embryo and a fetus, and the purposes of a placenta and an umbilical cord.

He showed them a film in which a young boy heard that erections and masturbation are normal and a young girl learned to decide whether to invite boys to a birthday party.

Talbert's students snickered - but only at the movie's music and dancing, not its topics.

Talbert and Rebecca Vierkorn travel the county, teaching family life curriculum to classes that are segregated by gender.

Masood, who observed from the back row, said all student questions are welcome.

Harned said she also has an open approach in her classes, which are coed. "We emphasize the proper terminology," she said.

When the class gets into sex talk, she has students make a list of slang words. "They giggle and they laugh," she said. "We say 'vagina' out loud."

They crumple their lists and throw them away. No more slang in class.

Harned said much of Chambersburg's sex education is covered in a nine-week program in eighth grade. Students learn about emotional development, diseases, risky behavior, and the male and female bodies.

Parents can keep children out of class discussions, but few do, she said.

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