Douglas County experiencing STD epidemic

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April 19, 2011 - 7:00pm

Your typical Omaha teenager spends about seven and a half hours a day in school, taking classes on various subjects like math, science, and history. Yet for the past seven years there has been an epidemic in sexually transmitted diseases for many teens living in Douglas County.

So, what are teens learning in school about sex?

The school bell rings and about 20 sophomores walk in to a Central High School class. The room has computers surrounding six long rectangular tables with chairs along with a sign posted next to the whiteboard that reads "Self-control is knowing you can, but deciding you won't."

Alexis Grenfell is the health teacher and explains a three-day class project to her students.

"We're going to talking about the consequences of having sex," she says. "We'll be mind mapping consequences of having sex. First thing that you need to keep in mind is that you need kind of a center image."

JaMesha Mitchell, 16, works during class on her mind map assignment. In the middle of her paper, spelled out in color pencil, is the word "condom".

"That's why I put the condom in the middle (as the center image)," she says. "In order to be safe when you do have sex, if you were to have sex, you need to be safe, so you won't catch anything, and you won't have a side effect of getting pregnant."

Mitchell is taking a 10th grade, OPS-required health course. Students say they've learned about the male and female reproductive system, and the different types of abuse and love. The next unit is the sexually transmitted infections lesson.

In 2009, 35 percent of Chlamydia cases and about 26 percent of Gonorrhea cases in Douglas County were reported to come from young people between 15 and 19 years old. The numbers of STD infections overall in Douglas County have risen dramatically in the last decade. In 2004 the STD trend was labeled as an epidemic.

Dr. Adi Pour is the health director for the Douglas County Health Department. Pour says in order to stop the epidemic, parents, churches, health care providers, government officials and schools must all get involved.

"Schools have been a little bit slower in getting on this," he says. "But, I also have to tell you, that schools recognize that they do play a part in it and they try to do what they can under their board of jurisdiction."

During a recent legislative session in the Nebraska Unicameral, State Senator Brenda Council from Omaha's northeast district introduced a bill that would mandate age-appropriate sexual health education for all public Nebraska schools. Currently, the Nebraska State Board of Education doesn't require HIV, STD, or pregnancy prevention education. Instead, sexual health education is left to the individual school districts.

"After learning of the number of concerns around the number of STDs, I began meeting to discuss what actions could be taken to address this trend," says Council. "And, what I've heard when I attended those meetings was education, education, education."

Valda Boyd-Ford is the sexually transmitted infections coordinator for the DCHD. She says young people aren't receiving the education they need to avoid risky sexual behavior.

"Students tell me information they receive from their teachers and parents is pitifully incomplete and woefully out date," she says. "They tell me that they lack the pertinent, relevant, age-appropriate information they need. They talk about coercion and date rape.

"They talk about peer pressure that leads to alcohol and drug use and the subsequent unwanted and unprotected sexual acts that change their futures forever. They cry out for help from knowledgeable people who are not afraid to talk about the world they live in, the realities they deal with."

A representative for the Nebraska Association of School Boards testified in opposition to the bill. The spokesperson said teaching sex education to students should be a partnership with the school, parents and the community. In fact, it is directly stated on their website: "Schools by themselves cannot, and should not be expected to, address the nation's most serious health and social problems."

Greg Schleppenbach with the Nebraska Catholic Conference also opposed the bill. He referred to a 2005 Nebraska survey about risky youth behaviors.

"It's found that young people are two to four times more likely to use alcohol and other drugs if parents show any acceptance of alcohol use," he says. "Are we to believe that this phenomenon does not apply to sexual activity?"

As class is ending, Mitchell says she knows kids who are not practicing safe sex. She says she understands that getting pregnant is a big consequence of having sex.

"I think this class is actually good for education," she says. "I'm happy that we have it in high school because I think we need it. A lot of teens that you see that are pregnant or that already have a kid in middle school, which is not a smart thing."

For now, lessons learned by many students will remain the same, at least in school, as no additional action has been taken on Council's bill.



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