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Health pros: sex ed in schools can play key role in students’ lives

WORTHINGTON — With Nobles County ranking high in teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases/infections rates, health professionals in the county say education plays an important role in a young individual’s sexual health experience, particularly from a prevention standpoint.

There are currently no Minnesota state standards that require sexual education be taught uniformly in public school districts across the state. According to the Minnesota Department of Education’s academic standards webpage, specific graduation and health education requirements are up to the discretion of each individual school district.

At Worthington District 518 — the county’s most populated school district — that decision is heavily influenced by the board of education, which reviews and approves all subject curriculum on a cycle, said Worthington High School physical education and health instructor Brad Grimmius. That cycle for board approval typically occurs every seven years, although committees charged with reviewing the curriculum may do so on a more frequent basis, said Superintendent John Landgaard.

With that in mind, sex education in District 518 is centered around abstinence, said Grimmius and Jessica Hogan, Worthington Middle School health and physical education teacher.

While abstinence is the primary focus, students’ reproductive health education would not be categorized as “abstinence-only,” as students receive education regarding contraception and how they can help prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases/infections — another area in which Nobles County ranks high among teens.

In the classroom

In District 518, students are formally introduced to sex education for the first time in sixth grade. At this age, students explore topics including adolescence, risk behaviors, abstinence and puberty, Hogan said.

Parents of seventh-graders receive a letter from the district at the beginning of the student’s three-week sexual health unit, which encourages parents to begin having related conversations with their kids at home. The seventh-grade unit reviews topics students learned in sixth grade and adds reproductive systems, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, healthy relationships and self-respect and boundaries.

Eighth-grade students receive a comprehensive review of all the topics.

Students continue their sex education in the high school, and must complete Health 9 and 10 to graduate, said Grimmius, who teaches Health 10.

When students reach the sexual health unit in Health 10, they begin by watching a video that animates human reproduction from conception to birth. Grimmius praises this video, adding that because it effectively represents both the male and female reproductive roles, he’s able to keep both genders in the same class and have conversations about it like young adults.

Students take an online pre-test before each lesson so that Grimmius is able to gauge what they know before the lesson begins. Almost exclusively online, students then complete a multitude of assignments and discussion posts before they are tested.

“That test is their ticket out,” Grimmius explained.

At the end of each class, every student pulls out a scrap piece of paper and pencil. Grimmius collects a paper from each student and begins the next day’s lesson by answering any questions he received. This process, he explained, allows students to ask their questions and receive answers without being identified by their peers.

While abstinence remains the focal point at the high school level, Grimmius said students are also educated about contraception and prevention, as well as connected with outside resources.

Some of those resources are also relied upon inside the classroom. Professionals from Southwest Minnesota Opportunity Council, Helping Hands Pregnancy Center and youth ministry leaders are among outside sources invited to speak and present to students at some point throughout their sex educational experience at school.

The ability to educate students about contraception as prevention and connecting students to outside resources, Grimmius said, is an improvement over how the curriculum looked a decade ago when he joined the district.

In 2008, his first year at the high school, Grimmius recalls there being more than 20 teenagers pregnant. School nurse Joni Reitmeier — who began at Worthington within a year of Grimmius — recalls a similar statistic.

The push then, Grimmius said, was closer to 100 percent abstinence.

“Kids were shutting down,” he said of some students not engaging in the education, particularly as a result of the previous decisions of some to already engage in sex — therefore writing off anything related to abstinence, thinking it no longer applied to them.

“In a great world, everyone practices abstinence, but I didn’t fall off the truck yesterday,” Grimmius added. “If we believe that no teenagers are having sex, then we’re pretty naive.”

He believes that for students to be empowered to effectively complete their own decision-making process, they need to be provided with all relevant facts and what consequences their actions could have.

Grimmius said this approach has also seemed to result in students opening up more and taking charge of their sexual health. He said students are generally very mature, respectful and full of a lot of questions about the topic. That may be in part due to the stage he sets from day one, where he explains the importance of the unit and that the students who chuckle or laugh the most are typically the ones who understand the least.

“You could hear a pin drop,” he said about students’ reactions.”You don’t want to be that person that laughs.”

Students may also come to Grimmius for a one-on-one conversation, which he says he keeps confidential — so long as it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of what he’s required to report.

“It’s between me, that student and the walls,” he said.

Lessons about dating, interpersonal relationships and decision-making help make a well-rounded curriculum that is related, but not exclusive, to sexual activity or health.

Grimmius said one thing he’d like to do in the future to enhance the curriculum is develop a parent group that meets every so often to provide input on the sexual education curriculum, This would allow parents to share their perspectives and to also teach and empower parents to address the topic that Grimmius said can be “a sensitive subject in homes.”