In Cleveland, the number of teenagers giving birth is almost double the state average. HIV infection has quadrupled in the past four years, and rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea are well above state and national averages. These statistics are alarming enough to convince authorities that only a bold approach will combat the problems of teenage sex. So the Cleveland Public Schools are implementing a new sex-ed program for all grades - kindergarten through high school seniors. No other school system in the country has anything like it. ideastream's Lisa Ann Pinkerton reports.
Traditionally in Cleveland, health and sexuality is taught to 5th and 6th grade students. But to truly bring Cleveland's pregnancy and STD rates down, the Cleveland Public Schools, the Cleveland Health Department and the Cuyahoga County Board of Health say all grades should teach age appropriate material on sexuality. With no models to base it on, the district tailor-made its program by selecting various successful elements from programs for different age levels that targeted Urban and African American youth. Lita Townsend is the coordinator for District's the new program.
Lita Townsend: In the early grades, we focus on things like sexual abuse, good touch/bad touch and those types of things. And then once we get into the 4th, 5th and 6th grades we begin preliminary discussion about puberty and body changes, moving up into discussion about what HIV is and sexually transmitted diseases are so that when the get into the junior high, middle school and high school level they really do have a nice base for being able to grasp the more heavy-hitting information.
In high school, students will learn about pregnancy and respect for sexual orientation, along with skills to help them stay away from situations that might lead to sex. This is done not though lectures but in role-playing games. Leading sexual education researcher Douglas Kirby, former head of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, says this is the best way to change student behavior.
Douglas Kirby: How do (you) leave a bedroom if they're necking with someone and it's starting to get out of hand? What can they do so it's more comfortable? What can they say? It's also then changing their perceptions of their peer's norms - because the ideas are coming from their friends that you want to avoid these kinds of situations or get out of them.
Talk of contraceptive use is also planned for the high school level, without actual condom demonstrations. However, in accordance with Ohio law, abstinence is stressed as the only way students can completely protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. This comprehensive approach is currently taught by most districts in high schools of Cuyahoga and Summit counties. But the region is sprinkled with districts teaching abstinence only, like Akron, Cuyahoga Falls, Brecksville/Broadview and Maple Heights, to name a few. Charles Keenan, superintendent of Maple Heights Schools, says this freedom to choose should be maintained despite Cleveland's new program.
Charles Keenan: Schools are a reflection of the community and they should respect what the communities want.
The federal government supports abstinence-only programs. But Cuyahoga County will only fund ones that include both abstinence and contraceptive use. The county is footing the bill for Cleveland's new program to the tune of $1.2 million a year. Tonya Block, head of teen pregnancy prevention for the County, says if Cleveland's new sex-ed program is successful, she hopes to expand it.
Tonya Block: We're hoping this is going to be the pilot, and we're hoping we can duplicate it in other communities as they get ready for it.
Cleveland's first classes in the new sex-ed curriculum begin in November. It will be several years before researchers will know if it is working. Lisa Ann Pinkerton, 90.3.