Until a couple years ago, Rebecca Trujillo taught health classes at East High School in Pueblo. Then graduation requirements changed and the classes, which included sex education, were cut.
Trujillo, who now teaches physical education with some health topics mixed in, fears that students get too little information about sexual health and many make poor choices. Currently, one of her 15-year-old students is pregnant. Two others have had babies within the last year.
Trujillo said she’d like to see a return to the comprehensive sex education she offered a few years ago. Although a handful of students would typically opt out, a majority participated in the unit, which covered topics ranging from abstinence to different kinds of contraception.
“I do believe it was working,” she said. “I tell it like it is to the kids.”
An “information void”
Trujillo is not alone in her worries that many Colorado students face an information void when it comes to sex, sexuality and reproduction. Supporters of House Bill 13-1081, which received final 37-28 approval in the House Friday, say it could help fill the gap.
If passed, the bill would create a new entity headed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that would seek out federal grant funding and private donations for comprehensive sex education. Applying for the grants would be voluntary, but districts receiving grant funds would be required to provide comprehensive sex education as described in the law. The bill includes an opt-out provision that would allow parents to excuse their children from participating in sex education classes with a written request.
“This bill would increase access to resources to a variety of schools and districts that are interested in implementing good, comprehensive sex ed.,” said Lisa Olcese, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter, an advocacy group promoting teen sexual health.
Opponents of the bill argue that it doesn’t do anything new and that Colorado districts can already apply for federal funds earmarked for comprehensive sex education.
“We’re re-creating the wheel here,” said Chad Hills, sexual health policy analyst for CitizenLink, an affiliate of Focus on the Family. “Ultimately, it’s adding another layer of bureaucracy.”
Although Olcese agreed that school districts or the state can already apply for federal funding for comprehensive sex education, she said the bill would increase collaboration, coordination and transparency between the various state agencies that work to address unintended teen pregnancy.
In addition to assigning CDPHE a leading role, the bill calls for representatives from the state Department of Education, the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, and the Department of Human Services to help oversee the grant program.
Mark Salley, communications director for CDPHE, said in an email message the department is neutral on the bill and couldn’t respond to questions about how the proposed grant-making entity would operate or what federal funding might be sought.
What are schools teaching now?
Colorado school districts are not required to teach sex education. However, if they choose to do so, a 2007 state law requires that it be medically accurate, age appropriate, science based and culturally sensitive, and must cover the benefits and potential side effects of abstinence, condoms and contraceptives. In contrast to the opt-out provision in HB 13-1081, the law includes an opt-in provision, requiring parents to provide written permission for their children to participate in the classes.
A 2011 survey of teachers, clinicians and administrators by Colorado Youth Matter, found that only 40 percent believed their schools met the requirements of the 2007 law. Twenty percent of respondents said their sex ed. programs didn’t comply with the law. Another 13-25 percent reported that they didn’t teach the benefits or side effects described in the law.
“We do know it is a patchwork,” said Olcese.
To Hills, it’s an effective patchwork that’s grown out of the state’s local control approach to education, allowing districts flexibility to choose curriculum that fits their demographics.
Pointing out the state’s relatively low pregnancy rate, he said “Whatever we’re doing right now seems to be working.”
Teen pregnancy rates have declined in Colorado and nationally for years. A 2012 report by the CDPHE, “Youth Sexual Health in Colorado, a Call to Action,” showed the state’s teen pregnancy rate decreased by nearly 37 percent between 2001 and 2009. In 2009, Colorado’s teen pregnancy rate was 35.1 births per 1,000 women in the 15-19 age range, compared to 39.1 nationally.
While Colorado has made strides in reducing teen pregnancy and the number of sexually active adolescents, certain counties still face higher-than-average teen pregnancy rates.
Among the state’s 10 most populous counties, Pueblo, Denver, Weld, Adams and Mesa, had teen pregnancy rates higher than the state and national average in 2009.
The rate was highest in Pueblo, at 59.8 births per 1,000 women ages 15-19.
It’s no surprise to Kristi Roque, a health educator with the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program, which is funded jointly by the City and County of Pueblo.
“Pretty much every place I go, I feel like these kids are in big trouble,” she said.
Roque said there’s little to no comprehensive sex education provided in the county’s two school districts.
“Pueblo’s got some pretty high teen birth rates and STD rates and if it’s not happening in schools, it’s not really happening anywhere.”
Roque, who does sex education presentations through schools, after-school programs and the municipal court system, said she can detect the dearth of knowledge about human sexuality in the questions kids ask.
For example, one student asked, “Is it OK for a 16-year-old to have oral sex with a 46-year-old?” Another wondered, “Can I get pregnant if I have anal sex?”
“You name it, they’re asking,” she said. “It all goes back to nobody’s talking to these kids.”