Sex education policy yielding positive benefits

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CLARKSDALE, Miss. (AP) — A little more than a year has passed since the adoption of an abstinence-plus policy in all three Coahoma County school districts, and teachers and students who have participated in the program, say they are seeing benefits.

A 2011 law required every school district in the state to adopt either "abstinence-only" or an "abstinence-plus" sex education curriculum.

Abstinence-plus allows for the teaching of not only abstinence, but information on condoms, other forms of birth control, STDs, and even date rape and how to say "no."

Linda Downing, curriculum director for Clarksdale Municipal School District, and Lisa Ross, a teacher at Oakhurst Intermediate School, "were the preliminary implementers on the district level," said Downing.

"This is the second year that our district has implemented the program," Downing said. "Most of the facilitators were health, science or physical education teachers."

CHART (Creating Healthy and Responsible Teens) is a program created by Mississippi First, which works together with the state Department of Health "to reduce teen pregnancy, improve teen sexual health and increase responsible decision-making," according to the CHART website.

The middle-school curriculum, called "Drawing the Line/Respecting the Line," is taught in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades; the high school curriculum, "Reducing the Risk," is taught in the ninth grade.

"Before I came to Oakhurst, I was at the high school for a number of years, I would see girls having babies and girls who were sexually active and wanted information," Ross said. "We don't encourage them to use contraceptives, but let them know it's out there."

Students in grades six through eight don't learn about sex in their curriculum. It's more about teaching youngsters how to say no, especially when offered alcohol or cigarettes.

"Refusal skills, that's the biggie here, at this level," Ross said.

One Clarksdale High School student who took sex-education in ninth grade definitely sees the benefits of it.

"Even I thought I knew everything about sex and I've been learning," said T'Keyah Burnett, a CHS tenth-grader. "They came in and talked about everything and it got pretty graphic, especially when they talked about diseases.

They talked about puberty, and then part of the abstinence-plus program that they talk about is birth control and condoms and preventions. Then they go on to tell you to prevent it all with just abstinence," Burnett said.

Dotterra Lofton, a 10th-grader at Coahoma County High School, however, has had a different experience. She said she didn't take any classes like that in the ninth grade, and she said she transferred to the county from CHS she was in Burnett's grade.

"No, we don't talk about sex," Lofton said.

One of the catches of the state law is that parents must have the choice to opt their students out of taking any sex-education courses. Lofton said she didn't know if her mother opted her out of the classes.

"It would be really good (to take)," Lofton said. "I have friends at school who say, 'I got to get this for my baby,' and I'm like, oh my gosh, they don't seem like someone you'd think would have a kid."

Latasha Stringer, counselor at CCHS, said the program has been well-received.

"Overall, it is going well, and the children are really receptive about the information being given. But when it comes down to certain topics, the teachers have to be very guarded. There are certain things they can't discuss or demonstrate. But the kids are really eager to learn, and it's been good for them," Stringer said.

Mississippi First recently hired a new Teen Health Policy Coordinator, Josh McCawley. McCawley said although no hard data has been prepared yet regarding the relatively new CHART program, he did say other research has shown positive results in reducing teen risk.

"One, we've noticed in research that a lot of students are waiting, and when students are deciding to engage in sexual activity, they're using contraceptive methods more effectively and efficiently," he said. "The rates of teen pregnancy are actually going down in Mississippi, but it still has one of the highest rates in the nation."

Mississippi First Deputy Director Sanford Johnson said the program recently received a $75,000 grant to implement the WISE initiative (Working to Institutionalize Sex Education), and the goal is "to make evidence-based sex education a permanent part of school.

"That (grant) is an allowance to expand the CHART initiative in other districts, and help districts who couldn't teach them in all four grades," Johnson said. "Coahoma County is going to be one of the areas that we are going to focus on."

But the students, the true beneficiaries of sex education, applaud it even if, like Lofton, they haven't yet been exposed to it.

"I have so many questions," Lofton said. "It's good just to hear about it, because that helped me realize there's so much I don't know."

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Online:

Mississippi First, http://www.mississippifirst.org

Mississippi State Department of Health, http://msdh.ms.gov/index.htm under a search for "CHART."

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Information from: The Clarksdale Press Register.

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