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Task force says schools must provide better sex education

December 07, 2005|by KAREN HANNA

WASHINGTON COUNTY

karenh@herald-mail.com

About half of all sexually active teens in Washington County who responded to a recent survey said they wish they had waited to have sex.

According to members of the Washington County Task Force for Teen Pregnancy Prevention, the public school system must do a better job of making sure students hear that message before it is too late.

The task force's September needs assessment suggests better communication between students and parents might improve the county's teen pregnancy rate, but Board of Education members said Tuesday night they are not sure how to bring parents into the process.

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Members of the task force said at the board's regular meeting Tuesday night the school system must do a better job of providing children with consistent sex education. The county's rate of 45 pregnancies per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19 ranks fourth in the state, and the teen pregnancy rate among white girls is the highest in Maryland, said Dave Engle, director of the Washington County of Social Services.

Board member Bernadette M. Wagner asked task force members whether social services providers would be willing to conduct sex-education programming during evenings and weekends. She said the school system cannot control whether parents take an active role in communicating with their teenagers about sex.

"I guess that was what I was trying to get at: We have the kids, but we don't have the parents," Wagner said after board member Roxanne R. Ober recounted how a video about birth got her and her daughter talking.

Melissa Nearchos, senior project coordinator for the Partnership for Children and Families, suggested the school system expand its Family Life offerings or allow service providers to cover gaps in the curriculum. Family Life is not offered to ninth-graders, she said.

"I would say that the issue is not with the service providers," Nearchos said.

While 91 percent of parents surveyed reported it is definitely not OK for teenagers to have sex, just 35 percent of teenagers said the same thing, Nearchos said. According to Nearchos, the survey revealed "there's a big communication gap," between the number of teenagers and parents who said they only rarely talked about sex. Forty-seven percent of teens and 8 percent of parents reported that's the case.

"One of the major areas is getting to the parents and talking with the parents," Washington County Health Department Health Officer Willliam G. Christoffel said after the meeting.

Christoffel said after the presentation and a short question-and-answer session with the board that he believes the school system's efforts must not stop at programs for teenage parents.

"My argument is they have a responsibility on the prevention side," Christoffel said.

In response to a question first raised by board member Paul W. Bailey, Christoffel said after the presentation that the task force is studying other schools' programs as models.

Talbot County public schools offer sex education to all students in grades 5 through 12, Christoffel said. The teen pregnancy rate in that county declined by 40 percent from 1995 to 2003, he said.

Bailey called the Washington County numbers "alarming."

"The data is alarming that you have provided. Unquestionably. Very alarming," Bailey said.

Christoffel said after the meeting that the teen pregnancy problem will not go away until the school board confronts it head on.

Christoffel called the board's discussion "a good first step."

"I think, overall, I have not been satisfied. This is the second time this has been presented to them without any real commitment," Christoffel said.

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