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Christoffel's exit must not stall teen pregnancy effort

July 27, 2006

As of Oct. 1, William G. Christoffel will retire as Washington County Health Officer. The move apparently resolves an investigation into allegations that he engaged in sexually harassing behavior while working at the Washington County Health Department.

But there is one thing that Christoffel's departure should not end - the push to reduce Washington County's teen pregnancy rate. No matter what anyone's opinion of Christoffel is, efforts on this issue must go forward.

The health officer began beating the drums on this matter in earnest in February 2005.

That's when he appeared before the Washington County Commissioners to tell them that in 2003, 185 females ages 15 to 19 gave birth.

That same year, he said, the Washington County birth rate was 45 births per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19.

That was the fourth-highest rate in the state, even though Washington County wasn't close to being Maryland's fourth most populous county.

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A Teen Pregnancy Prevention Task Force was formed and, citing results of a survey of hundreds of teens and parents, said schools must do a better job of educating students about sex.

The school system responded by planning assemblies to emphasize the benefits of waiting to have sex and previewing the material for parents.

The task force recently recommended that the health department get $134,097 to pay for a nurse practitioner, a media campaign, supplies and medicine.

Depending on how that new employee's time is used, he or she could be the part of a system modeled on one in Talbot County, Md.

In the past nine years, Talbot County has cut its teen pregnancy rate by 43 percent. Officials there said the effort began to pick up steam in 1993, when the first school-based health center was opened in Easton, Md.

Two years later, a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation enabled the school system to add two more centers.

At those centers, a nurse practitioner was available to diagnose and treat students, as well as to give them information on reproductive health options

Talbot County also offers sex education to all students in grades 5 through 12.

It's easier to write about this than it will be to reproduce such a system here. Inevitably, some parents who haven't been paying attention will be shocked by material given to their children.

At that point, it will take political will and community resolve to keep the program moving forward. And with Christoffel no long cheerleading for it, someone else must step into that role. The community cannot allow this effort to stall because of one man's retirement.

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