Part 2: Sex education in Oregon: is it working?

Medford, Ore. — Oregon has one of the leading sex education policies in the country, but teen pregnancy rates are above the national average and even higher in southern Oregon. In part 2 of a special report on teen pregnancy in the valley, we’re looking at what is being taught in schools, what’s missing, and the programs in place to support teens who become pregnant.

Keyona Ledezma’s journey to parenthood was a little different than most.

“Went to school on Monday,” Keyona Ledezma recounts, “and had him on Tuesday.”

She was a sophomore at Eagle Point High school, when she learned she was pregnant with her son Brayden.

“I was really scared,” Keyona says.

Determined to finish school, Keyona transferred to North Medford High where they have a dedicated program to support teen parents.

“I feel like it’s critical,” Teen Parent Program Coordinator, Michelle Stone says.

Students from all over Jackson County can transfer to North, and dozens do.

“Couple years ago it was around 90,” Stone says, “and last year it was around 75.”

The county’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the state average, but there’s been a decline over the last few decades. During that same time frame, the state put in place comprehensive human sexuality education standards. Experts say, that works.

“Sex education we know is effective kind of through the backward position,” Dr. Tamara Medley says, “where we found out if we do abstinence only sex education that was the only time in the last 30 years that teen pregnancy rates went up and sexually transmitted infection rates went up.”

Oregon statute requires students receive a comprehensive health sexuality education by the time they graduate; that emphasizes abstinence as the only 100% way to prevent unintended pregnancy or STI transmission, but not to the exclusion of providing information on contraceptives, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, while including all forms of sexual intercourse that addresses all sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expression.

It also calls for curriculum to be age appropriate, medically accurate, and not fear or shame-based.

“So folks should be getting a really robust sexuality education in Oregon,” Planned Parenthood educator, Lauren Walters says.

Walters teaches sex ed in schools across Jackson County.

“Covering all aspects of sexuality,” Walters says, “so those sort of curriculum are gonna be talking about sexual and gender identity, they’re gonna be talking about birth control and sexual protection, STI transmission, consent, healthy relationships.”

In the classrooms she’s invited to, she aims to have students walk away with a well-rounded concept of human sexuality. But that’s not the case in every district.

“At this point school districts are allowed to choose how much sexuality education is brought into the schools,” Walters says.

NBC5 News reached out to the state in regards to the standards. The Oregon Department of Education says, while lengthy and elaborate, there are still gaps in what’s being taught.

“It’s not an easy subject to implement,” Ely Sanders of Oregon Department of Education says, “I think there’s a lot of misinformation around what comprehensive sex ed is and and there’s a lot of competition on time in schools.”

And any and all assessments for the districts are self-monitored and self-reported to the state.

“The thing that we don’t know though is what exactly is being done at every school district in Oregon,” Jessica Duke, with Oregon Health Authority says.

Who teaches the curriculum, is also up to each district to decide, whether that be a doctor, an outside sex ed educator, or the school’s P.E. teacher. Some say that alone can really change the subject matter.

“The P.E. teacher doesn’t necessarily have that training to be able to give that accurate, medically, accurate, and comprehensive sex ed,” Sky Loos of Planned Parenthood says, “so it’s uncomfortable they aren’t necessarily giving the students all the information they need.  So we are able to fill that gap because we are uniquely qualified, all we do is sex ed.”

Even with the gaps, experts say the current guidelines are working, as the region continues to see decreases in teen pregnancy, birth rates, and STI’s. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

“I think one of the areas we’re missing is our middle schoolers,” Dr. Tamara Medley says while ahead of the game, Oregon can do even more, “we know from statistics that about 11% of our 8th graders are sexually active.”

“We need to be talking about healthy relationships at 6th grade, 7th grade, and 8th grade,” Dr. Medley says.

Even with all the education in the world, teen pregnancy will still happen, and educators say support is key.

“Teens that are pregnant face a whole different number of challenges,” Jackson County health educator, Nancy McKinnis says.

Challenges that young moms like Keyona have faced, but have overcome, with help from programs like the one at North Medford High School.

“I was like way behind” Keyona says, “but I got all caught up on all my credits, and I’m on track to graduate.”

Keyona is set to graduate next month.

Meanwhile, Oregon’s sexuality education standards are getting an update next school year. Right now, school districts have a list of subjects they have to cover, y the time a student graduates from elementary, middle, and high school. It’s up to the districts to decide when, and at what grade levels to give that information to students.

Starting next year, schools will have grade specific guidelines. Click the links to learn more about the state changes and local resources for sex ed.

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