LUMBERTON — Robeson County health officials are campaigning for a comprehensive sex education curriculum in the public schools. They say such a curriculum would decrease the high teen-pregnancy rate and the number of sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers. Robeson County ranks 11th in the state for its teen-pregnancy rate.
Last year, 446 girls in Robeson County between the ages of 12 and 19 had babies. There were 62 abortions among girls ages 14 to 19, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Currently, the school system’s sex education curriculum is abstinence-based.
Health officials want a program that would discuss a variety of issues, including safe sex, decision-making, refusal skills and consequences of certain behaviors, said Lashona Miller, a health educator with the county Health Department.
“It is all about prevention. Nothing deals with teaching students how to have sex,” she said.
Health officials began their campaign this summer. People who support a comprehensive sex education curriculum signed a postcard asking for such a program in the schools. More than 200 cards were mailed to the school system.
Last week, health officials started running ads in a local newspaper asking people to write or call the school superintendent, school board members and state legislators.
The Health Department received an $11,000 grant from the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Coalition of North Carolina to increase the community’s awareness of teen pregnancy in Robeson County and how comprehensive sex education can reduce the teen pregnancy rate and sexually transmitted diseases.
“The counties that do have that piece, they are making a difference,” said Kay Phillips, executive director of the coalition.
“The comprehensive piece is nothing more than a day about contraceptives, how they work and how they don’t work. It’s that simple.”
“We realize these young people are not going to stay teenagers,” Phillips said. “We want them to be responsible adults so they can be informed and knowledgeable.”
Robeson health officials formed the group CHATS, Creating Health Advocates Through Schools, to get information to the public. The group consists of health educators, parents, students and representatives from different agencies in the county.
It recently conducted community and student surveys about having a comprehensive sex education curriculum in the schools. Information from those surveys will be presented to the school board, Miller said.
“Hopefully it will be an eye-opener for them to do something about the issue,” Miller said. “We put so much emphasis on physical fitness and tobacco use that we forget about other issues, like how to reduce teen pregnancies. We don’t want to be left out.”
Calls to Superintendent Johnny Hunt were not returned.
School board Chairman John Campbell said he would be willing to discuss the issue with health officials after getting input from other board members.
“I know we have a problem with unwed mothers and sexually transmitted diseases,” Campbell said. “Abstinence is the best policy, and we wish that was something everyone would abide by. I am certainly receptive to what we can do legally to be more comprehensive.”
In 1977, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring the Department of Public Instruction to develop and implement a comprehensive health-education program for kindergarten through ninth grade.
In 1995, it amended that law to include sex education for the purpose of pregnancy prevention. One year later, the General Assembly added its Abstinence Until Marriage Act. It says that if a comprehensive sex education course is to be taught, one of the components must be abstinence until marriage.
Individual school boards decide what components of the sex education curriculum are taught in county schools. The school system must hold public hearings whenever sex education is being considered as part of the curriculum. Hearings also must be held when new material to the curriculum is being considered.
School officials can talk about the effectiveness and failure rates of condoms.
The state’s Standard Course of Study allows school officials to discuss the effectiveness and failure rates of birth control in the eight grade, said Sherry Lehman, of the state Department of Public Instruction.
“While we are an abstinence-until-marriage state, we do go beyond that,” Lehman said.
There are at least 12 school systems in the state that have had hearings and can be more comprehensive than what the statute allows, Lehman said.
The Cumberland County school system teaches abstinence only.
Discussing a curriculum
There would need to be some talk about what a comprehensive sex education curriculum should encompass before Robeson County schools could change its course of study, Campbell said.
“Some people think comprehensive includes handing out condoms … This is something that can’t be ignored. But, how to address it and embrace it is still debatable,” he said.
Campbell said a collaborative community effort is the key to combating teen pregnancy.
“The sex-education piece is just one of those pieces. … There is a part of our community that will remain ready to ignore it and just say no. It didn’t work with drugs, and it didn’t work in preventing teenage pregnancy, either,” he said. “There has to be an awareness campaign just like how we attacked any other health issue such as diabetes, heart disease and syphilis. It will require a comprehensive effort from many partners in the community, including our state legislators.”
A proposed bill submitted earlier this year would have amended the school health education program to include comprehensive sex education. However, the bill had opposition among the church community and others. The bill was referred to the Committee on Education, where it died.
State Rep. Garland Pierce, who was among the bill’s co-sponsors, said the bill was controversial because some felt it would give teenagers the green light to have sex. Also, it would cover alternative lifestyles such as homosexuality.
“The alternative-lifestyles issue was what killed the bill,” he said. “That is what scared people away from it. Some feared if the schools were teaching it, they would participate.”
But others argued it would give students knowledge to protect themselves, said Pierce, who is also a pastor.
“Girls are getting pregnant at an early age, and then there is the risk of getting a disease. … At some point you have to take your head out of the sand and see the reality. There are nearly 500 teenagers who have had babies in Robeson County. Either you learn it from the bathroom or from your friends, or learn it from the professionals who will teach you the real deal.”
State Rep. Ron Sutton, who also represents Robeson County, said he has no issues with sex education.
“It’s what you teach and who you are teaching it to,” he said. “Children should be allowed to be children as long as they can and not clutter their minds.”
He said second- and third-graders should not be taught about homosexuality.
“These are the kind of things that concern me,” Sutton said.
Sutton said if the matter came before the Judiciary Committee, on which he serves, a comprehensive sex-education curriculum would be closely scrutinized.
Pierce said parents can opt their children out of the class.
“Parents should be able to consent one way or the other,” he said.
Pierce said he thinks the issue will come up again.
“It is an issue that we need to deal with,” he said.
Staff writer Venita Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (910) 738-9158.