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Sexual health education – is MCS doing enough?

The results of the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey show that Memphis City Schools high school students are more likely to have had sexual experience, more likely to have had intercourse with four or more persons and less likely to have used birth control since the survey was last conducted in 2009.

The survey – released this week – is a national school-based tool developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and conducted by local education and health agencies. The 2011 survey information was gathered from students in grades 9-12 during October 2010 to December 2011. Shelby County Schools are not required to conduct the survey.

The 2011 survey shows:

62.2 percent of Memphis City Schools students who completed the survey reported having had sexual intercourse, up slightly from 61.6 percent who reported ever having had sexual intercourse in 2009.

A significant increase in the number of students who report having had sexual intercourse for the first time before age 13; 15.6 percent in 2011 over 12.1 percent in 2009;

More students report never being taught about AIDS or HIV infection in school – 22.8 percent in 2011, over 20.6 percent in 2009;

Students are less likely to have used a condom during their last sexual intercourse – 27.9 percent in 2011, up from 27.6 in 2009.

In a release about the survey, Planned Parenthood officials said results in Memphis essentially have been unchanged since 2003, meaning that "two entire classes of students have completed their high school years and graduated without any significant improvement in these sexual behaviors that put young people at risk of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections."

Martavius Jones, a member of the Unified School Board and the Transition Planning Commission, called the statistics alarming.

"We are concerned that many of our children do not get involved in the kinds of pursuits and extra-curricular activities – such as sports, music, drama and the creative arts – which channel their talent and energy into more productive endeavors," said Jones.

"As leaders of our school system, it is not lost on any of us that more effort to get our youngsters involved in such must be made. And clearly, this is going to take a concerted effort on the part of parents, teachers, administrators, and others in the community who are concerned and commit to invest their time and effort in our children's education and character development. This survey is a wake-up call to us all."

MCS released a statement pointing out that MCS follows the Michigan Model for its Family Life Curriculum.

"This age appropriate curriculum begins at the elementary level in grade four and extends to the high school level. Lesson plans include changes the body undergoes during puberty, sexual responsibility, and the prevention of STI's (sexually transmitted infections). The Family Life Curriculum extends through student's first year of high school."

While sexual education is not mandated by the state of Tennessee for students in grades 10 through 12, MCS provides Human Growth & Development for students.

"This year-long course is more intensive and focuses on healthy relationships, prevention of STI's and pregnancy prevention. These curriculums also call for promoting sexual risk avoidance through abstinence – now required by state law in all sexual education curricula.

Planned Parenthood emphasized that the problems are not confined to Memphis. "The Annie E. Casey Foundation's 'KIDS COUNT: The State of the Child in Tennessee 2011' study, released last week, showed that children in Shelby County have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection in all of Tennessee. In fact, nearly half of all the teenage cases of sexually transmitted infections in the state are in Shelby County."

According to Planned Parenthood, Tennessee's "family life" curriculum is supposed to include information about sexuality and was always inadequate and unevenly taught. A bill passed by the Tennessee General Assembly this spring and signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam last month will make it even less likely that Tennessee students will get the information they need "to protect themselves," the group asserts.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway said the new law reflects a gap between ideology and reality. As for the survey results, Hardaway stressed that the African-American community, particularly those in positions of authority and influence, must step up to address the need.

That can – and must – happen, said Hardaway.

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