TEACHER: “Usually when I talk about sex education I’m with teachers, nurses, and counselors.”
YASMEEN QURESHI: These teachers and administrators in Beckley, West Virginia, are learning how to teach students comprehensive sex education. Part of their day is spent role playing how to answer students’ tough questions.
TEACHER: “How do you know if you’re ready to maybe have sex?”
YASMEEN QURESHI: Local education officials, frustrated by the state’s teen pregnancy rate, started this initiative three years ago.
NORA GELPERIN: Nora Gelperin, from the non-profit Advocates for Youth, leads sessions like this all over the country.
NORA GELPERIN: It’s more than just condoms and abstinence. It’s talking about relationships and dating violence and talking about communication. How do you break up with someone? How do you say no if someone’s pushing you to do something you’re not comfortable doing. All those skills that both young people need, and adults need as well.
YASMEEN QURESHI: West Virginia requires middle and high school health classes to cover sex education. But it’s up to the discretion of the individual principals and teachers how in depth they teach it. The only mandatory topic by law is HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Gelperin says there’s no consistency to the way sex ed is taught within the state or across the country.
NORA GELPERIN: It’s a real patchwork of policies. About half of the states currently have a policy at the state level and half the states don’t. A lot of students will tell you it’s too little too late, it comes too late in their education if they get it at all.
YASMEEN QURESHI: Since the 1990s, teen pregnancy rates have decreased across the United States. But in the mid-2000s, West Virginia’s rate spiked in the opposite direction. Today, it has the 6th highest teen birth rate of the 50 states. Kierstin Edwards is one of those teen mothers, raising her two-year-old daughter, Aubrey, while staying in high school. Edwards got pregnant at 14.
KIERSTIN EDWARDS: I was still a freshman, and I was just like there’s no possible way I could have done that. And it was a big surprise to me.
YASMEEN QURESHI: A surprise even though she says she didn’t use contraception properly.
KIERSTIN EDWARDS: We were young. He was my first. We didn’t use as much protection as we should have, and we didn’t try to prevent it, but we also didn’t think that it could happen.
YASMEEN QURESHI: Before her pregnancy, Edwards had one sex ed class a year in her middle school.
KIERSTIN EDWARDS: It was like one, basically an hour, and they told us everything, and then in 8th grade they told us everything again, but it was like, it was once a year when they did this.
YASMEEN QURESHI: Kierstin’s mother, Brandy Surratt, is helping raise her granddaughter and babysits while Kiersten attends school. She says she taught her daughter about sex.
BRANDY SURRATT: If they teach it a lot more in school and not only at home too, you know, I think things could have been prevented.
YASMEEN QURESHI: And so you’re in favor of having a more comprehensive sex education?
BRANDY SURRATT: Oh yes. Don’t just teach them, ‘Hey, abstinence is the best, here’s a condom.’ No, don’t hand them out condoms, teach them about all sorts of different birth controls. You’re not going to change a teenager’s hormones no matter how much you preach. It’s not going to work, because teenagers are hormonal, and things happen.
SELINA VICKERS: Of every eight babies that were born in West Virginia, one was born to a teen mother. I mean, I think that’s, that’s crazy.
YASMEEN QURESHI: Selina Vickers is a state health coordinator who is trying to improve the sex ed curriculum.
SELINA VICKERS: West Virginia is a very high poverty state anyway. Teen pregnancy is just part of the cycle of poverty, and if we want our kids to break the poverty cycle, we have to stop them from becoming mothers and fathers before they’re ready.
YASMEEN QURESHI: Motivated by studies showing that teenage girls who are taught comprehensive sex ed are less likely to become pregnant, Vickers started training teachers in a curriculum that’s been adopted across the U.S called FLASH. It covers not only abstinence, but also consent, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual orientation, and sexual abuse. So far, schools in only 20 of the state’s 55 counties use FLASH. The Federal Government funds a similar program, but also still promotes abstinence-only through Department of Health grants that started in the 1980s. West Virginia is one of 35 states still getting the funds…despite studies showing that abstinence-only has “…no overall impact on teen sexual activity…” and “…can cause an increase in teen birth rates.”
SELINA VICKERS: We’ve put millions and millions and millions of dollars into abstinence only programs, and what every bit of research has shown is that it does not work. Kids that go through abstinence only often have much higher rates of STDs and pregnancy, because they didn’t have another option, they didn’t know what, how to protect themselves.
YASMEEN QURESHI: In rural McDowell County, as recently as 2012, one in ten teenage girls became pregnant, which was the highest rate in West Virginia. That’s why Nelson Spencer became one of the first school superintendents in the state to adopt the FLASH curriculum, in 2014.
NELSON SPENCER: We always give the parents the choice to opt out of any class that we have that they would think would be controversial. So it’s not forced upon any student that does not want to have that education. Whether it’s sex education, whether it’s English, we want our kids to be prepared to go in the future and be knowledgeable about any topic that comes along that we teach in McDowell County.
YASMEEN QURESHI: In addition to the the new FLASH curriculum, McDowell County schools offer an after school elective sex ed program called “Teen Talk.” 15-year-old Montana Dye and 17-year-old Rachel Hendrickson attended. Both say they barely had any sex ed in Middle School.
RACHEL HENDRICKSON: We had health, and that was about it. And they went over like the bone structure and dieting and exercising.
YASMEEN QURESHI: How much knowledge did you have before you took the after school program?
MONTANA DYE: I didn’t know that much about teen pregnancy and stuff and how much it– it actually matters. Because I didn’t believe that it matters that much and how much it cost to, like, keep care of a kid.
YASMEEN QURESHI: So what were some of the gaps in your knowledge about sex education?
RACHEL HENDRICKSON: The different types of birth control. I thought it was just the pill and a condom, but there’s much more to it. That you can get an injection in your arm to prevent it.
YASMEEN QURESHI: Did you find that information helpful?
RACHEL + MONTANA: Yeah. Yeah, it really did help.
YASMEEN QURESHI: Dave Perry, a teacher and principal for 35 years who sits on the State Board of Education says he prefers a simple sex ed curriculum that stresses abstinence only.
DAVE PERRY: Well, it’s fundamental, because it’s Biblical. And I think abstinence is foolproof, 100 percent. Anything apart from that, as far as contraceptives and so forth, has a margin of error, but abstinence doesn’t.
YASMEEN QURESHI: Perry says his religious objections to teaching more than the minimum about sex are shared by many people in this state.
DAVE PERRY: I think it’s more responsibility of parents, and parents have a right to do that, and I think as education, we’ve become more social institutions than we have educational institutions. And we’re dealing quite a bit with social problems and issues that I don’t think our educators are that qualified or certified to address.
YASMEEN QURESHI: Perry worries comprehensive sex ed could make teenagers want to have sex.
DAVE PERRY: With contraceptives and condoms and so forth, I think it’s an encouragement. You know, it’s a green light that this is possible without bearing children. So, I think to what extent and to what extent you teach, what you teach you get.
JENNIE YOOST: If you start talking about sex, it doesn’t make, you know, teenagers run down the street and be sexually active.
YASMEEN QURESHI: Jennie Yoost, an OBGYN affiliated with Marshall University in nearby Huntington, teaches Teen Talk.
JENNIE YOOST: Abstinence only works if you’re abstinent, and what we know about teenagers is that in ninth grade about 30 percent, this is nationwide data, 30 percent in ninth grade are sexually active. That number goes up to close to 60 percent by twelfth grade. When we look at actually comprehensive sex education and covering all of these topics, you know, data has shown that, you know, those students that participate in those programs have, you know, less, they delay sexual activity, they have less sexual partners or more compliant with things like condoms and contraception.
YASMEEN QURESHI: Eighteen-year-old high school senior Isom Bailey also attended Teen Talk.
ISOM BAILEY: I wanted to learn about a healthy relationship and the STDs and how to prevent like having a child and stuff, because I’m not financial stable. I would like to learn the mistakes that can happen.
YASMEEN QURESHI: Isom’s older sister had her first baby at 16. Isom says he and his girlfriend plan to delay sex.
ISOM BAILEY: I promised her that I would wait until after marriage, ‘cause it’s special to me, because kids all the time talk about having sex and just being with someone in the bed, and I don’t think like that. I think that you should be more respectful to them and not just think about yourself and your own needs and wants.
YASMEEN QURESHI: Beyond the new curriculum and after school program, McDowell County medical clinics that operate inside the high schools offer teens free contraception, including condoms, and the pill, without parental consent. While these controversial changes are in the early stages, school superintendent Nelson Spencer believes they are having an impact.
NELSON SPENCER: We want them to be educated about all facets of life and to be able to make the right choice for them and make the choice that’s going to benefit them in the future.