Area agencies turning to youths to improve sex education


Published: Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 6:32 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 6:32 p.m.

Despite a national drop in the rate of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases over the past decade, Alachua County's numbers have not dropped as steeply.

One reason, area health professionals say, is that sex education curriculum in public schools isn't covering as much information as it should.

Dr. Nancy Hardt, a professor and director of Health Equity and Service Learning Programs in the University of Florida's College of Medicine, said Florida students used to have a health class requirement for graduation.

Now, the only requirement is a one-semester course called Health Opportunities through Physical Education, which addresses disease prevention and control, relationships and teen pregnancy prevention.

To bridge the information gap, agencies such as the Alachua County Health Department and Planned Parenthood have introduced programs that train young people to help their peers find the resources and information they need.

Teresa Mercado White, regional minority AIDS coordinator for Area 3/13 at the Alachua County Health Department, noticed the lack of information years ago and started sending pamphlets to school with her daughter, a sixth-grader at the time.

Classmates had questions her daughter couldn't answer, so in 2011, White started a text-messaging campaign, where teenagers could ask her questions anonymously.

The questions, she said, "were kind of scary." Clearly, she said, students weren't getting the help they needed, such as information about where to get tested for STDs and/or what to do if they became pregnant.

"The services are available for teens, but they don't know how to access them," White said.

In response, White, her daughter and a handful of UF volunteers have begun a program called PAUSE — Peers Advocating for Unified Services and Education.

The program provides an eight-hour training session for students ages 13 to 18 where they get information about pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, dating violence, drug and alcohol addiction and other health issues that affect teenagers.

After the training, the peer advocates receive a badge with all of the phone numbers of area agencies that can help teenagers in difficult situations, such as the county Health Department, which does free STD testing.

White said teenagers are much more likely to go to their friends when they have questions about symptoms than their parents or a school counselor.

"When it comes to all of those situations, we're hoping at least, through the advocates being in the school … that we can bring a lot of these rates down," she said.

About 40 PAUSE advocates have been trained since 2011, but since they're in a half-dozen schools in the district, they don't meet up or have an adviser.

White said her next goal is to coordinate the peer advocates so they maintain some direction and can report data to the Health Department so White has a better idea of what issues teens are struggling with the most.

One option is to pair the peer advocates with existing clubs, all of which have faculty advisers, although she hasn't identified an appropriate club yet.

"I really, truly believe that the teens have the power to reduce (their risk) if we give them the information," she said.

The goal, officials said, should be to increase access to relevant information teens need to stay healthy.

"Over the years, fewer and fewer students … are being taught about sexually transmitted infections, about coercive sex (sexual assault), about how to avoid pregnancy, just anything about teen sexuality," Hardt said.

Schools can invite health professionals to give presentations, but each principal can also limit what's discussed.

For example, in some schools, professionals can talk about condoms but can't demonstrate how to properly use them. Depending on the question, they can't always answer students' queries.

Consequently, Dr. Tom Martinko, an associate clinical professor with UF Health who specializes in adolescent medicine, said that often, teenagers get a lot of their information on sex from movies and the Internet.

Unfortunately, that means he sees plenty of teens who think birth control pills cause cancer and condoms are 99.9 percent effective.

They're shocked to find out that one out of six teen girls will become pregnant within a year even if they use a condom every time they have sex.

"If they're not getting the information from a reliable source, like from school, then they're just not getting it," Martinko said.

But there's fear involved with reaching out to health care professionals directly.

In Florida, minors aren't guaranteed access to contraception or emergency contraception without parental consent.

Children still will mess around, Martinko said, but if they think their parents will be told if they ask for help, they might just forgo getting treatment, which can lead to more medical problems.

Repeatedly, studies have shown that abstinence-only sex education doesn't work. But comprehensive sex education — which tells teens that abstinence is the most effective way to avoid pregnancy and STDs but also teaches about contraceptives and communicating with intimate partners — does work.

"Talking to kids about contraception and about sex isn't going to cause them to go out and do things," just like talking to them about suicide isn't going to make them commit suicide, Martinko said. "There's nothing wrong with teaching morals at the same time you teach sexuality."

By the time students get to college, some of them are aware of their options and some aren't, said Kylie Lacusky, a UF junior and president of UF VOX: Voices for Planned Parenthood.

"We talk to students who don't know how their own bodies work, and then in the next five minutes" talk to a student who's asking for non-latex condoms and coupons for STD testing, she wrote in an email.

Many of the club's members are licensed sex educators through Planned Parenthood, she said. Because of that, VOX can take a more hands-on approach with outreach, often going to clubs and bars on weekend nights armed with goodie bags full of contraceptives and information about sexual health and where to get tested locally.

VOX members are hoping to go into public schools soon to work alongside Planned Parenthood educators, she said.

Outreach events, particularly with the goodie bags, tend to get a great response, Lacusky said.

"Several of the clubs know us by sight now, and let us leave a stack of bags at the entrance for anyone who needs more," she said.

Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or erin.jester@gainesville.com.

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