Who is teaching the teens?Responsibility for teaching sex education isn’t on schools alone
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a four-part series on teen pregnancy in Nobles County.
WORTHINGTON — With 20 teens in the Worthington School District walking to class this year with a baby bump or as a new mother, one has to wonder why there is such a surge in teen pregnancies.
Do we blame educators, parents, clothing designers, television, music or the movies? Are students not getting the message about abstinence or the use of contraceptives? Or do they view pregnancy as glamorous and a sign of being grown up?
Perhaps it is a combination of all of the above.
District 518 does not practice an “abstinence only” teaching policy, according to school nurse Wendy Donkersloot. What that means is that while abstinence is taught in the classroom, it isn’t the sole focus of sex education programming.
Regardless of what is taught in the classroom about sex, Donkersloot said it should also be taught in the home.
“It is primarily parent responsibility to educate their kids,” she said. “The community needs to realize it isn’t a school issue, it’s a parental issue.”
Still, the school does what it can to teach students about sexual reproduction and sexual health.
Students in the middle school are exposed to child abuse and sexual abuse in the sixth grade, with the family life and human sexuality unit taught in seventh grade.
“That’s where the main sexual talk is held,” said WMS assistant principal Jennifer Backer. “In eighth grade, they talk about it again, however, they focus on drug and alcohol use and how that impacts decisions.”
There are also elective classes in the middle school’s family and consumer science curriculum that students can take, such as the baby-sitting class where students have to care for and carry around an egg that represents a child, or the parenting class that requires students to carry a flower baby and write journal entries about the experience. In those courses, videos on teen parenting are also shown to students.
Once students get to the high school, sex education programming is done once again in the 10th grade.
“We have an extensive three-week-plus unit related to sex education in 10th grade health,” said high school principal Scott Backer, adding that the programming is taught by the school’s health teacher and two to three guest speakers.
“We want to make sure all of our students get exposed to it, so we do a required class,” he added.
The high school also has electives in the family and consumer science, science and agriculture curriculums that address sexuality indirectly, Scott Backer said.
Lori Klooster, director of Southwestern Minnesota Opportunity Council’s Family Planning office, is one of the guest speakers who talks to students in the Worthington school district. With the county’s teen pregnancy rate ranking in the top five for the past few years, she said perhaps the schools need to consider increasing its sex education programming.
“Maybe we need to reinforce this every year, rather than just seventh and 10th grade,” she said.
Donkersloot echoed that suggestion.
“I would like to see us targeting each grade every year,” she said. “This (year) has brought a big awareness to the problem.”
As the school nurse, Donkersloot said she’d “love to have time to go in and do some education” with students, but as the only full-time nurse in a school district of 2,300 students, there just isn’t enough time. Her requests to add more staff in the school nursing department have gone unanswered, even though the recommended ratio is one full-time school nurse for every 750 students.
Birth control isn’t
While teens may learn in the school’s sex education programming to use birth control if they plan to be sexually active, measures such as taking birth control pills or using condoms are not going to fully protect the female from getting pregnant.
That is why Klooster said her message to teens first and foremost is abstinence.
“I am fully promoting abstinence, because it’s 100 percent effective,” she said. “Abstinence is a form of birth control.”
Contrary to what teens, or even adults, may think, most non-prescription birth control is only about 95 percent effective, while condoms alone are just 88 percent effective, Klooster said.
Talking about abstinence and birth control is too little too late for the teens who are already pregnant, but Donkersloot and school social worker Jill Bents knew the pregnant teens could use more education and guidance about what they can expect while they’re expecting.
In early May, Donkersloot and Bents began a teen pregnancy group to meet once each week for the remainder of the school year. The group will likely start again in the fall, when students return to class.
Meetings began at 2:30 p.m. and lasted about an hour. They included a variety of information.
“We talk about issues they feel are important and give additional information for them and the health of their growing baby,” Donkersloot said. “You aren’t going to change anything now — you need to focus on the health of the teen and the baby.”
In addition to connecting the teens with available resources, Donkersloot said they brought in guest speakers, including a teen-age mother who shared a story of the obstacles she has overcome to be both a mom and a high school student; a public health nurse who talked about the Women, Infant and Children program and the importance of nutrition while pregnant; an Early Childhood Family Education resource person; Helping Hands Pregnancy Center; and local physician Dr. Zane Craig.
“(Dr. Craig) let them ask questions … and they talked about labor, pain, the (delivery) procedure, risk and epidurals,” Donkersloot said.
“We try to stress to the girls education — not only caring for themselves and their baby, but continuing their education,” she added.
Diverse group of pregnant teens
According to the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting, 15- to 19-year-old girls of Hispanic or Latina descent had the highest birth rate of all nationalities in Minnesota from 1992 through 2006, followed by American Indian, African American, Asian/Pacific Islander and White.
That data, however, doesn’t accurately reflect the teens in Worthington’s school district who are pregnant or gave birth this year. Donkersloot said of the 20 girls, three are black, three are Asian, five are Hispanic/Latina, and nine are white.
“We are unaware of the race of the fathers,” she said, adding that several of the fathers are older and out of high school.
“In some cultures, it’s not all bad to be young and pregnant,” Donkersloot said. “It’s just not viewed as appropriate in our southwest Minnesota society.”
Among the expectant and new teen mothers in the Worthington school district, Donkersloot said one is a seventh-grader; one is a ninth-grader; seven are in 10th grade; seven are in 11th grade; and four are high school seniors.
“Most of them say their significant other is supportive, and they’re all keeping their babies,” she added.