Educator: Much more can be done to prevent problem
Del Norte County dropped from having the highest teen birth rate in California to having the third highest rate, which health education advocates say is a step in the right direction but still leaves much room for improvement.
According to state data released this month, Del Norte County had a rate of 52.8 births per 1,000 females aged 15- to 19-years-old from 2010 to 2012, well above the state average of 28.4 births per 1,000 teen females in the same period.
“It’s trending in the right direction, but we need to get our teen birth rate down to near the state average,” said Don Olson, superintendent for Del Norte County Unified School District, which currently has a federal grant that provides $50,000 a year for evidence-based sex education and adult life-planning curriculum. “We know that education is the key, and we need to continue with strong educational programs for our teenagers.”
Only five California counties, including Del Norte, had rates above 49.9 teen births per 1,000 teen females: Tulare County (53.7), Kern County (53.4), Del Norte (52.8), Imperial (50.7) and Kings County (50.6).
The average teen birth rate in the United States, 31.3 per 1,000 teen females, is significantly higher than other Western nations. The United Kingdom comes closest with 25 per 1,000, but the next closest is much lower, Ireland (14.9), and drops steadily after that, according to figures from the Public Health Institute.
More education needed
Due to its high teen birth rates, Del Norte County was invited in 2010 to apply for a federal Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) grant, which was funded by the Affordable Care Act and has provided the Del Norte school district with $50,000 a year for evidence-based education programs
Research shows that “if we give young people all of the information, they are more likely to not be sexually active, or if they are sexually active, then they will do it in a way that’s safe,” said Beth Chaton, who helped the district apply for the grant and is now the project coordinator for Del Norte County’s PREP grant. Chaton holds a Doctor of Education degree in sexual health education and has worked in the area of reproductive health for 35 years, including working with programs that lowered Humboldt County’s teen birth rate from the highest in the state to below the state average.
Since the PREP grant is specifically for students who are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior, too many students in Del Norte schools only receive sex education twice throughout their K–12 education, Chaton said.
“To do a program once in middle school and once in high school is not enough,” she said, adding that some teachers have told her that they don’t want additional sex education.
The comprehensive sex education that Chaton advocates goes beyond teaching teens to be abstinent and/or practice more safe sex. It also includes skill-based activities to teach teens how to negotiate risky scenarios and also how to plan for the future, which encourages teens to not get pregnant.
“Just providing education about birth control doesn’t cut it — they need skills to negotiate and do life planning.” Chaton said. “It’s all about helping young people negotiate, problem solve and make healthy choices.”
The biggest cause for teen births is teens’ “lack of a future plan; lack of goals, and a sense that they aren’t going anywhere. So instead they’re making choices on the here and now,” Chaton said.
Del Norte youth have one of the highest rates of not having a plan after high school, Chaton said, citing a study done by First 5 California.
The Coastal Connections youth and young adult resource center has been a huge support in showing teens that there are “other things to do besides get high and have sex,” Chaton said.
There will be more flexibility in offering comprehensive sex education next year as Chaton, who commutes from Humboldt twice a week, will be handing off her Del Norte duties to Denise Doyle-Schnacker.
“I don’t have the flexibility to be here Monday through Friday, so we’re changing the model so we can better meet needs of the young people next year and see middle school youth,” Chaton said. “My goal was to get things moving, get the conversation started, get the program in the system and then move on.”
Part of the difficulty of implementing comprehensive sex education is the politicized nature of the topic. Chaton said that she has had people question the state data on Del Norte’s high teen birth rates during School Board meetings.
“Over 90 percent of parents across the state believe that comprehensive sex education is necessary for young people. Less than 10 percent believe it should be abstinence-only education, but we have a vocal minority that threatens lawsuits,” Chaton said.
Chaton said that it is more a public health issue than anything political, especially considering the inherent risk of contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases and the cost to government for public assistance to teen mothers. A teen birth ultimately costs taxpayers about $4,000 a year throughout the child’s life for things like welfare, MediCal, food stamps and even lost wages, Chaton said.
“People are concerned that if you teach sex education that it will encourage kids to have sex, but we know through research that that is not the case at all,” Chaton said.
Denise Doyle-Schnacker, the health educator of the PREP grant, said that Del Norte cannot rely on federal grant funding for these programs forever, and she hopes to build more connections with the community to emphasize the importance of sex education.
“We’re really hoping to connect with the community and not just the school district,” Doyle-Schnacker said.
The PREP grant doesn’t allow for any parental education on how parents can talk to their children about sex issues, but through community partnerships, Doyle-Schnacker hopes that programs for parents can be created.
“I think a lot of parents assume that it’s already being taken care of in the school system, and it’s not,” Doyle-Schnacker said. “They’re not learning relationship skills; they’re not learning how to recognize that they are in an abusive relationship.”
Chaton said that many parents find it hard to talk to their kids about sex and relationship issues because the parents aren’t willing to admit what they were doing as teens.
“There’s a lack of honest conversation about choices we make and kids are often wanting to talk about these things but adults don’t know how to do it,” Chaton said.
Parents also have to pay attention to youth culture and control what kids are doing on the internet, on their smart phones and other technologies.
“If they relinquish control, that is contributing to the over-sexualization of our kids,” Chaton said. “A parent has to be really motivated about youth culture and what’s going on.”
Chaton said that for now Del Norte continues to rank near the top of the state for teen birth rates, but with more support like there has been in Humboldt County, Del Norte could see the same dramatic shift away from high teen birth rates.