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Niagara Falls students seek better sex education than 'abstinence only'

NIAGARA FALLS – The rates of teens getting pregnant or contracting sexually transmitted diseases are far higher in Niagara Falls than the state average.

And that has one group particularly worried: Niagara Falls teenagers.

They have identified a place where they can go to help curb those high rates – their classrooms. But they're not satisfied with what they have been hearing there.

So the Niagara Falls Youth City Council, a 10-member group, addressed the Board of Education last week and asked for better sex education in the high school's mandatory health courses.

"I'm a ninth grader, and all my friends are participating in sex, and they have no idea what they're doing," said Mia Maye, a freshman Youth City Council member. "They're not being safe about it. They're always scared there's going to be a pregnancy scare or an STD. And they have no one to talk to about it."

They found at least one sympathetic listener.

Superintendent Mark R. Laurrie says the students are right.

He promised to work with the board to deliver plans for a more informative sex education course by October.

"For quite a long time, we haven't paid enough attention to it," Laurrie said. "I think their advocacy was right on, a topic that needed to be addressed."

Laurrie said the high school's current sex ed program "is based around abstinence, and abstinence only."

The students question how effective the program is, given that one of every 10 teenage girls in the 14301 and 14303 ZIP codes in Niagara Falls become pregnant, according to state Health Department data.

"We can't hide our heads in the sand on this," Laurrie said.

Nowhere close to average

Teen pregnancy rates have fallen in Niagara Falls, as they have in the rest of the country, but the decrease in the Falls has not kept pace with the national average.

The teen pregnancy rate in Niagara Falls' poorer neighborhoods is about three times higher than the state average.

The percentage of teenagers with sexually transmitted diseases in Niagara County is well above statewide averages, too, and it is rising.

From 2007 to 2009, the pregnancy rate for 15- to 19-year-olds was 16 percent for the 14301 ZIP code, and 13 percent in the 14303 and 14305 ZIP codes.

In 2014, the most recent Health Department data available, the teen pregnancy rates were 9.7 percent in 14301, 9.5 percent in 14303, 6.3 percent in 14305.

The 14301 and 14303 ZIP codes cover an area generally bounded by the Niagara River, Pierce Avenue and 47th Street. Those are the southern and western parts of Niagara Falls. The 14305 ZIP code covers most of the northern part of the city, along with parts of the Town of Niagara and southern Lewiston.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said the national teen birth rate for 2015 was 2.2 percent, the lowest since the agency has been keeping track. It's been dropping steadily for 25 years. But CDC reports say the pregnancy rate tends to be higher in areas with lower incomes, and that would include parts of Niagara Falls.

"They've seen some decrease, but nowhere close to the national average," said Christopher Spicer, vice president of programs for Planned Parenthood of Western and Central New York. "It's pretty clear that there's things going on in Niagara Falls that are separate and apart from the rest of the country."

Laurrie said the district's staff needs to discuss what content is appropriate for which grade level, while holding parent information nights on the topic and allowing them to opt their children out of the sex education curriculum.

"We really have to pull up our socks on this curriculum," Laurrie said.

Sex ed that comes 'way too late'

The state Education Department mandates some form of sex education, but leaves the details up to local districts.

The department "encourages districts to partner with their students, families and communities to make decisions about sexuality education that are developmentally appropriate and consistent with identified needs and values," a department spokeswoman said. "The Education Department allows and encourages districts to adopt developmentally appropriate evidence-based curriculum supporting the needs of their students and communities, thereby providing the district flexibility to prioritize and tailor curriculum."

The key phrase is "evidence-based," said Spicer of Planned Parenthood.

That means a program should show it has reduced pregnancy rates.

In 2010 the state Health Department started supporting only evidence-based sex education programming. The statewide teenage pregnancy rate fell 31 percent in the ensuing four years.

"We want more education on how to avoid pregnancy," Niagara Falls senior Adam Hamilton said.

He said sex education is discussed only for a couple of 45-minute class periods in the health course.

Laurrie said that class normally is taken in 11th grade.

"It's way too late," said Maye, the ninth grader.

She said she knows more than 10 teens who have become pregnant.

Niagara Falls also requires a health course in seventh grade, which discusses the physical changes students experience during puberty.

"There was nothing really about sex," Maye said.

She said the detailed sex information should be presented at least by ninth grade.

"We're still using the same material that was discovered in the 1960s," Hamilton said. "We know a lot of districts in other places have Planned Parenthood come in and give demonstrations."

Few Planned Parenthood opt outs

Planned Parenthood sends representatives to 134 schools between Buffalo and Syracuse to talk to classes and present demonstrations of contraceptive use, such as how to apply a condom or insert an intrauterine device, Spicer said.

Parents can keep their children out of those classes.

If Planned Parenthood or another organization with similar information comes into Niagara Falls schools, a parental opt-out will be allowed, Laurrie said.

Planned Parenthood has found that very few parents opt out, said Spicer, the organization's local vice president of programs. And that is good for the students, he said.

"They are living lives so far removed from what we lived," Spicer said.

"I think we need to open up more accessibility for outside agencies," Laurrie said.

Besides Planned Parenthood, sex education assistance also is offered by Native American Community Services and the Buffalo Federation of Neighborhood Centers.

"The age people start having sex has lowered so much, and people don't know what they're talking about," Maye said. "We need a lot of information about healthy relationships, and what to do if you're put in that position, birth control, how to make sure you are taking your safe precautions, how to know when you're giving consent and when you're not. No one should be pressured on something so serious."

What should we tell the kids?

Sex education was an early battleground in the culture wars, with fights over whether the courses should go beyond telling kids not to have sex.

"Some of the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs were ideologically based, they weren't very practical, they didn't consider the communities that they were going to be implemented in, so ultimately they didn't resonate," Spicer said.

He said newer sex education programs, such as the "Be Proud, Be Responsible" program created by ETR, a California company, continue to include abstinence "as an option that's front and center."

"However, this focus on repeatedly saying 'no' can give the impression that sexual pressure is an expected norm in relationships," an ETR news release said. "Many educators now want to reframe instructional activities in ways that emphasize mutual respect and affirmative consent."

In New York, the Education Department said it "requires districts to have advisory councils to include parents, school board members, school staff, community representatives, and members of local faith-based organizations to provide recommendations concerning the depth and breadth of such topics in health education."

Of course, teens are aware that sex leads to babies and that a child having a child is a recipe for problems, but the message needs to be reinforced, Maye said.

"Teens think it will never happen to them, but it always happens," said Maye, a freshman. "When you're not pregnant, you don't think you're ever going to get pregnant."

The ninth grader added that "information about condoms and how to check them would be very helpful at our age."

Handing out condoms

Since last year, condoms have been available in Buffalo public schools. Students whose parents haven't forbidden them from getting the condoms may ask their school nurse for condoms. The nurses have been trained in demonstrating their use, said Assunta Ventresca, director of health-related services for the Buffalo Public Schools.

Buffalo schools to allow school nurses to give condoms to students

But Laurrie opposes doing that in Niagara Falls.

"I'm not going that far," Laurrie said. "I'm not going to distribute condoms in school. I don't think that's our role."

Buffalo schools also updated their sex education materials and gave teachers new professional training on the topic, Ventresca said.

A 2015 survey of Buffalo students showed 38 percent had lost their virginity, but that number was 51 percent in 2011, Ventresca said.

She said the 2015 teen pregnancy rate in Buffalo's nine highest reporting ZIP codes was 6.1 percent, and for the city as a whole, it was 4.95 percent. That's still better than the rates in Niagara Falls.

Sexually transmitted diseases are also are a growing problem for local teens.

In 2015, the gonorrhea rate among those 15 to 19 in Niagara Falls was 66 percent higher than the average for the state outside of New York City. Erie County's teenage gonorrhea rate is three times the upstate average. The numbers in both counties have risen since 2013.

The Niagara County Health Department says teenagers account for 20 percent of the known gonorrhea cases. The county reported 48 patients 15 to 19 with confirmed cases of gonorrhea in 2015.

Boys 15 to 19 account for 22 percent of Niagara County's male chlamydia cases, and teenage girls account for 36 percent of the female chlamydia cases.

Laurrie said if Niagara Falls' budget permitted it, he would like to have a health educator travel from school to school in the district, as early as fifth grade, talking to students about their challenges and questions on all health issues. He also said if he had enough funds, he'd like an on-campus health clinic.

"If you were given the opportunity to have a health guide who would talk about and let you know how to protect yourself, it would be a lot more helpful for us teens," Maye said.

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