Abstinence from sex remains the only fail-safe way to protect against teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDs, acknowledges Gretchen Brogdon, manager for the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) that’s now being taught in Garfield County schools.
“There is plenty of research that says teens who delay sexual activity are less likely to engage in other risky behavior,” Brogdon is also quick to add.
But the prevailing school of thought these days is that it’s also naive to think that abstinence-only sex education — absent a comprehensive discussion between adults and teens about sexuality, setting boundaries, healthy relationships and, yes, contraception — will be effective in convincing all teenagers to wait, she said.
Brogdon points out that for as long as federal dollars were directed only to abstinence-based sex education curriculum, the national teen birth rate didn’t improve.
In Garfield County, about 10 percent of births are to teen mothers. That percentage hasn’t changed much over the past decade, she said.
“There is also plenty of research that says comprehensive sexual health education does make a difference,” Brogdon said.
That’s why a coalition of Garfield County health service and youth agencies got together in 2011 to go after new federal funding that was part of President Obama’s signature health care legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Garfield County was one of three Colorado counties selected to receive $155,000 per year through the 2014-15 school year, with the possibility of extending the funding through 2019, to work with local schools to implement PREP as part of their health education programs.
One goal is to decrease teen pregnancy in Garfield County by 2 percent.
Although it’s too soon to measure any impact on the teen birth rate, Brogdon said that in just the second year that the program has been taught in Roaring Fork Re-1 and Garfield Re-2 schools, post-testing of students shows they do have a better knowledge of their sexual health and awareness about sexually transmitted diseases and other concerns.
They also say they intend to stay abstinent until they are emotionally ready to have sex, and when they are ready they intend to use contraception, Brogdon said.
PREP is designed to offer an age-appropriate, comprehensive sex health education starting in sixth grade and continuing through high school.
The curriculum meets the requirements of the Colorado Healthy Youth Act of 2007, as well as the Colorado Department of Education comprehensive health standards that were adopted in 2010, Brogdon said.
The program starts with a basic foundation for younger students about setting personal boundaries, drawing lines and understanding and respecting when someone says “no.”
Seventh- and eighth-grade students begin learning more specifically about sexual health, and how to have conversations about sex and relationships with trusted adults.
“There is plenty of discussion about abstinence, and that it is the best choice,” Brogdon said.
From the upper middle school years through high school, the five to eight hours of sex-ed classes each school year are devoted to role-playing among students, continued discussions about how to talk to parents and other adults, and how to recognize whether a relationship is a healthy one, she said.
High school students are also recruited and trained as peer educators to help present the “Draw the Line/Respect the Line” material in the middle schools.
Other students, including members of the Basalt High School Latinas Arriba class, have also volunteered to discuss the issues in community presentations and on radio station KDNK.
Condoms and questions
Eighth grade is where contraception is first discussed; specifically, what a condom is and how to use one, Brogdon explained.
A trained instructor gives a demonstration using a model for the eighth-graders, while high school students are given the opportunity to “try it themselves,” using the model of course.
“If you’ve never handled a condom before, you’re less likely to actually use one,” Brogdon said. “All along, we’re always talking to the students about how they know when they’re ready, what’s the right age, and the responsibilities that come with starting a family.”
Abstinence, as well as the importance of contraception for those who do decide to become sexually active, is continually emphasized through high school, she said.
That’s also the age where the more serious discussions about sexuality, relationships, unhealthy behaviors, and how to talk with both adults and peers is critical, she said.
“If you want to change behavior, you have to allow the students to ask questions and give them honest answers,” Brogdon said.
Questions are often asked anonymously on paper, and can be very candid. Answering them can be “nerve-wracking,” Brogdon admits in a blog posted on the Garfield PREP website (www.garfieldcountyprep.org).
“I am thinking about how a parent might react, what the school staff is thinking, and if I have the medically accurate information,” she said.
“Mostly I am thinking about the student who asked the question — what question is hiding in this question? What do they really want to know? What is this student’s comfort level with their own sexual health? Where did they hear these words?”
There’s also the eye-opening, “How did this kid make it to 15 without knowing this?” Or, “How did a 12-year-old find out about that?”
If students want to find reliable answers to their questions outside the classroom, they are encouraged to visit a pair of websites that are endorsed by PREP and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. They are www.sexetc.org and www.stayteen.org.
“We really try to emphasize to them, don’t just ‘Google’ it,” Brogdon said. “That’s where you can get into trouble.”
Another key piece of the program is to maintain communication with school counselors in case any red flags arise in conversations with students, such as possible sexual abuse, she said.
Roaring Fork Re-1 schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt utilize trained instructors provided by PREP and its partner agencies to teach the classes.
Garfield Re-2 schools in New Castle, Silt and Rifle chose to have PREP train the district’s own health teachers to use the materials.
The program has not yet been introduced in Garfield District 16 schools in Parachute, but that conversation has begun, Brogdon said.
PREP has an opt-out policy for parents who do not want their children to be part of the program.
Interestingly, in two years only about 50 students have opted out in Garfield County, compared to about 1,500 students who have gone through the program.
“We do make sure to send all of the information home to parents about the program, and talk about it at parent nights,” Brogdon said.
She said there hasn’t been much in the way of pushback, “not like it was 10 or 15 years ago when we tried to introduce comprehensive sex health education in the schools,” she said.
Parents and other adults are also an important part of the PREP approach, Brogdon said.
The first in a series of free adult classes begins this week, focusing on the topic “The Teen Brain, Technology & Sex,” called “What Were You Thinking?”
“Sex, relationships and the connection to technology is impacting our teens more than we realize,” Brogdon explained.
“This program is designed to enable everyone in our community to feel confident when talking about these issues in an accurate and consistent manner that will help support our youth to make healthy decisions,” she said.
Future adult sessions offered as part of PREP will focus on the topic of what’s considered normal sexual development. Called “More than Meets the Eye,” it will be offered in February and March.
The April-May class, “Roller Coaster Ride,” will deal with healthy teen relationships.