Schools must do more to prevent teen pregnancies

December 08, 2005

The Washington County school system already provides breakfast and lunch to some students, special help for those whose parents didn't prepare them to learn and a variety of after-school programs to keep others out of trouble.

How much more should the system be called on to do?

It's a fair question, at a time when the federal No Child Left Behind Act is putting more pressure on schools to help students achieve more academically every year. Should it really be up to the school system to teach students about the birds and the bees, too?

Yes. It isn't fair, but life often isn't fair and it is clear from the latest state statistics that many parents aren't doing a good job of explaining the facts of life - or of reinforcing the idea that having sex too early can have lifelong adverse consequences.

But if citizens ask the schools to enhance the Family Life curriculum, they must be ready to pay the additional costs.


That's the bad news. The good news is that paying to prevent teen pregnancy now will be less expensive than paying for the cost of teen births later.

That's because research has shown that children born to teen mothers are more likely to be low-birth-weight babies. Because most teen mothers are more likely to need free medical care, that's another cost for taxpayers and/or hospital ratepayers to absorb.

Children born to teen mothers are also more likely to be abused, neglected or have problems with substance abuse. All of these add to the costs citizens pay for police, courts and rehabilitation.

One key element in preventing teen pregnancy is improving communication between parents and children.

Surveys show that many parents believe when they say "sex in bad" they've had a conversation on the subject. Teens, however, told surveyors they want in-depth talks that many parents might be uncomfortable having.

Local School Board members who heard a teen pregnancy task force report Tuesday said they weren't sure how they would get parents involved in the process. We suggest that they take a look at what has been done in Talbot County, Md.

Why Talbot County?

Since 1997, Talbot County has cut its teen birth rate by 43 percent. In that same time, Washington County's birth rate for mothers ages 15 to 19 grew to the fourth-highest in the state, topping both state and national averages.

In April, Talbot County officials told The Herald-Mail that they had spent 10 years developing a multifaceted approach to the problem.

In 1993, a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation enabled Talbot County to continue a high school health center already running at Easton High School, while adding others at Easton's elementary and middle schools.

Nurse practitioners there are available to diagnose and treat students, and to give them information on reproductive health options, officials said.

Nurse practitioners at those centers cannot give out birth-control devices, but can prescribe them.

To deal with at-risk teens' need to talk to someone about their lives, a group similar to Big Brothers Big Sisters was formed.

Parents got help, too, through a program called Guiding Good Choices, offered to mothers and fathers of fifth- sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

When elected officials are faced with a decision that might be controversial, their tendency often is to appoint a task force to spend months studying possible solutions.

That's an approach Washington County should avoid. Since Washington County Health Officer William Christoffel began pushing this issue, there has been little or no opposition to improving what schools tell students about pregnancy and how to avoid it.

To judge from the statistics, Talbot County obviously has a system that works. Instead of trying to craft one just for Washington County, it would be cheaper and faster just to reproduce Talbot County's program here.

Washington County may be unique, but the problems that its young people face are all too common. Before too many more of them make mistakes that could affect their lives in a negative way, let's borrow a proven solution now.

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