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Solving teen pregnancy problem requires elected officials to lead

March 19, 2006|By BOB MAGINNIS

Sometimes an argument is just an argument. Tempers flare, harsh words are spoken and then it all blows over. But sometimes an argument a sign of something else.

I thought about that Thursday after I spoke to Edward Masood, the Washington County school system's the school system's director of arts, health, physical education and athletics.

It's the "health" part of his job that has brought Masood a load of grief lately. He oversees the school system's course in Family Life, which someone decided years ago was a less upsetting way to refer to "sex education."

William Christoffel, the Washington County Health Officer, has said repeatedly believes the school system isn't doing enough, in that course and in other ways, to combat teen pregnancy. For Masood, Christoffel's latest shot came this week during the health department's budget presentation before the County Commissioners.

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Commissioners President Greg Snook asked Christoffel if the school system was doing anything to cut the number of teen births. Christoffel said he was biting his tongue, but then said "no" after Snook pressed him.

"Our relationship with the School Board has been difficult, to say the least," Christoffel said.

That was a surprise to Masood, who told me he felt the two agencies were working together.

"Up until I read the paper, I didn't think we had an 'us and them' situation," he said.

Defending the school system's performance, Masood said contrary to Christoffel's charge, no one had been denied access to any meetings on the Family Life curriculum. As for any inference that's he's not behind the initiative, Masood said that he has attended all meetings of Teen Pregnancy Prevention Task Force.

To Christoffel's complaint that a workshop for the county's ninth graders talked about last November hadn't been scheduled until recently, Masood said that "after spring break and before the proms" a team of presenters will travel to all county high schools, bringing a 90-minute pregnancy-prevention message to all 1,700 of the county's ninth graders.

On other points, Masood offered the following:

It would be foolish to try to rewrite the local health curriculum now, because the state is currently doing its own comprehensive revision of the health course that will be done this spring.

A survey of teens and parents released last fall recommended that system provide information in 12 content areas.

"We do 11 now, but not the twelfth, which is sexual orientation," Masood said.

The school system tries very hard to get teen girls who give birth to return to school, Masood said. Those who don't come back, he said, are more likely to give birth again within a year.

But it was Masood's final point that got to the heart of the matter.

"If there are concerns by one agency or another, I would prefer these concerns be discussed at the highest leadership levels. Mr. Christoffel should have called the president of the Board of Education if he had concerns," Masood said.

Masood is right, but perhaps not in the way he imagines. What we have here is a disagreement between the director of the school system's health curriculum and the county health officer over the effort to combat teen pregnancy.

With no disrespect intended, both of these men are not the final word on policy in their respective agencies. Those are the elected officials, but what I've seen so far doesn't indicate that either the School Board members or the County Commissioners have made a full commitment to the effort.

I agree with W. Edward Forrest, a School Board member, that it's not just a problem for the school system, but one that should be addressed by the whole community. But the community's leaders haven't come together on this yet.

When Christoffel raised the issue in February 2005, Commissioners William Wivell and John Munson said they felt sex education was important, but was a job for parents, not the schools. At the time, Snook said he didn't know enough on the issue to comment on it.

Is it difficult to figure out why School Board members wouldn't launch a full-court press on this issue if they weren't sure the commissioners - their funding agency - were behind it?

Perhaps that's why school officials are saying that problem will take a generation to solve - because they're not sure the commissioners want to face it head-on now.

Here's a fact: Since 1997, Talbot County, Md. has cut its teen pregnancy rate by 43 percent. When I spoke to officials there last year, they told me crafting a strategy that worked took 10 years. Before any more time passes, the commissioners must acknowledge that Washington County has a problem and direct all local agencies that depend on county funding to work together to solve it.

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