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What happens when teens don't talk to parents about sex

October 12, 2005

After reading the latest report on teen pregnancy in Washington County, the biggest surprise isn't that the rate is so high - fourth highest teen birth rate in Maryland - but that, given some of the behavior reported, it isn't higher.

The report, entitled the Pregnancy Prevention Needs Assessment, was produced by Shattuck & Associates Inc., a Mt. Airy, Md. consulting firm.

Its raw material was a series of interviews done over several days at Valley Mall with 288 teens and 151 parents.

According to William Christoffel, the Washington County Health Officer and United Way of Washington County Executive Director Dale Bannon, all teens interviewed had to have signed parental permission or return to the mall accompanied by a parent.

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For their trouble, each parent and teen interviewed got a $15 mall gift certificate. Christoffel said it was not a scientific survey, but an assessment of teen and parent attitudes on the topics of sex and teen pregnancy.

Some of what the teens said was frightening, especially to a parent.

"Fifty-four percent of them were sexually active, Christoffel said, defining "active" as engaging in either oral, vaginal or anal sex.

"Out of that total, 25 percent said they had five or more partners (for vaginal sex). That's frightening because of the implications for sexually transmitted diseases," Christoffel said.

Perhaps because teens and their parents have difficulty talking about sex, both told surveyors they wanted more taught in their Family Life classes.

According to Christoffel, more than 70 percent of those responding said the emphasis of those classes should be abstinence plus information about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases.

To those who say that sex education is a job that should be done at the home, the responses suggest that parents and teens have different ideas about what having a conversation about sex means.

While the report notes that 8 percent of parents reported that they "rarely" had a conversation with their children about sex, 47 percent of teens answered "rarely" to the same question.

The report notes that while some teens avoid being frank with parents during such discussions out of fear that it will result in more rules - tighter curfews and the like - some parents are uncomfortable with such talks because the subject of their own youthful behavior might come up.

That might be so because 25 percent of the parents surveyed said they were teen parents themselves. As noted previously by school officials, it is not unusual for a 35-year-old local woman to have a 16-year-old daughter who has already given birth.

Christoffel, who has tangled with school officials in the past over what he sees as their reluctance to beef up Family Life curriculum, sees the assessment as evidence that both parents and teens want the schools to do more in this area.

There may be some obstacles to that. In March, I spoke to Edward Masood, the school system's supervisor for arts, health, physical education and athletics.

Masood's duties include oversight of the Family Life curriculum, which he said had been updated on a regular basis since 2003, when he took the post.

The biggest bar to further changes, he said then, was a new directive coming from the U.S. government that would bar local systems from receiving federal funds unless their sex-education programs were abstinence-only.

Asked about that, Christoffel said that after Masood's statement appeared, he had followed up with his contacts in the federal agencies and couldn't find anything to substantiate it.

As a start, Bannon said, more schools might welcome the after-school program run by the Girls Inc., a United Way agency.

"Not all principals have seen the value of that program," Bannon said, adding that whether or not to allow it is up to the "sole discretion" of the principal.

As I said in a previous column, something has to change, because what the system is doing now isn't working. As Christoffel noted, in 2004 there were 206 births to teen mothers - 20 more than in 2003.

What happens to teen parents and their children is fairly well known. Both are more likely to remain in poverty. Children born in such circumstances are more likely to be abused, neglected and to have problems with substance abuse and the justice system.

Years ago, when state lawmakers decided to introduce a bill allowing liquor stores to stay open on Sundays, I expected a backlash, but it never came.

On sex education, perhaps I'm also anticipating a backlash that won't happen. Based on this survey, parents seem to want their children to know more about sex, but aren't comfortable delivering the information themselves.

Somebody had better deliver it, unless we want to see Washington County move further up the teen pregnancy hit parade.




Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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