In Counties Where Teen Pregnancy is High, a Sex Ed Program Offers Promise

Sex educator Stephanie Bentz talks to boys in the San Joaquin County Juvenile Detention Center. Photo: Lisa Renner.
Sex educator Stephanie Bentz talks to boys in the San Joaquin County Juvenile Detention Center. Photo: Lisa Renner.

The teen boys in the San Joaquin County Juvenile Detention Center had a lot of questions for the two sex education instructors who paid them a visit.

Among them: Where are free local clinics that provide testing for sexually transmitted diseases? Is there a cure for AIDS? Can you use ear wax to find out if your partner has an STD?

Stephanie Bentz and Sophia Cardona patiently answered them all. They promised to give the boys a list of clinics and assured them that the answer was definitely no to the last two questions. Bentz said the ear wax issue is one of the most persistent myths making the rounds with teens.

The women, who work for Stockton’s Delta Health Care, have positions funded through the federal Personal Responsibility Education Program which seeks to reduce teen pregnancy and STD rates. The program was created in 2010 by the Affordable Care Act. California operates the program on a $5.9 million budget.

San Joaquin County is one of 19 California counties receiving funding because of high teen pregnancy rates. In 2012, San Joaquin County recorded 33.7 births for every 1,000 females age 15-19. For California as a whole that number was 28.4 births for every 1,000 females age 15-19.

Nearly half of the other counties receiving funding are also in the Central Valley. The other counties are scattered throughout the state. Since program implementation began in 2013, the program has served more than 30,000 youths age 10-19.

Reducing teen pregnancy is important because it is associated with increased maternal and infant disease and death. Having children at a young age can also make it harder for parents to achieve their career and financial goals.

“The vast majority of teen pregnancies (at least 82 percent) are unintended,” states the website for Washington, D.C. based nonprofit Advocates for Youth. “But research has shown that science-based, comprehensive sexuality education, contraceptive access and youth development programs can help young people make choices that protect them from unintended pregnancy.”

Like many of their peers throughout the state, Bentz and Cardona use the evidence-based “Be Proud! Be Responsible!” curriculum. It consists of six one-hour lessons that include discussion of abstinence, how to use condoms and how to negotiate with a reluctant partner about using birth control.  The curriculum, which incorporates videos and games, has been approved for its effectiveness by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Deanna Staggs, who coordinates the San Joaquin County program, said she likes how the tone of the class is one of mutual respect. “You can’t just lecture at them — ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’” she said. “You have to address why they should care.”

While Bentz and Cardona generally had a good rapport with their class during a lesson late this summer, they still had trouble holding the attention of all of their juvenile hall students. The young inmates easily lost focus and chatted among themselves. One boy complained that he had already taken the class three times before at his regular school and already knew all the information.

But public health officials say it’s worth the effort to reach out to the students because they often aren’t as informed as they think.

Vanessa Cruz, a 14-year-old from Stanislaus County, said she learned some new things in the class, which she attended last year at her junior high school in Ceres. “I learned that you can’t get an STD from sitting on a toilet,” she said.

“I thought it was fun and interesting,” said Jessica Solis, who also attended the class last year in Ceres. She said she wished the sex education class was offered more than just one period a day.

Esmeralda Gonzalez, the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency manager who coordinates the program and also uses “Be Proud! Be Responsible!” said it gives the students the tools they need to make smart choices.

They learn how to have healthy relationships and how to respond to a partner who is pressuring them into unwanted sexual behavior.  Students are taught to say no to unsafe behavior, give a reason why they want to be safe, provide alternative safe behaviors and to talk it out. The kids are also encouraged to talk to their parents or guardians about values and beliefs.

The agencies that administer the program are tracking how it works by giving students a pre- and post-test to see how much they learned. The data will be reviewed for effectiveness by the Institute of Health Policy Studies at the University of California, San Francisco.

Instruction is given in a variety of places including regular public and alternative schools, group homes and reproductive health clinics. The class can last from one day to eight weeks depending on which curriculum is used.

With whatever time they get with the kids, the health educators hope they can at least get their students thinking about the effects of their actions.

When the San Joaquin County Juvenile Hall students seemed reluctant to want to talk to their partners about whether they had been tested for STDS, Bentz was blunt.

“That’s your health you’re putting at risk if you can’t talk to your partner about sex,” she said.

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