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Mississippi leads the country in adolescent birth rates in 2020

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Mississippi is again leading the country in the number of teen births, despite declining rates both in the state and across the country.

Mississippi levels have dropped significantly over the past two decades, but still lag behind the rest of the country. In 2020, in the last year for which data were available, teens in Mississippi gave birth at a rate almost twice the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention th4e data.

Lawyers and a former state senator point to the unchanging – and, in their view, dim – law on sex education.

Although curricula in major subjects such as math and science are reviewed and updated every five years, the Mississippi Department of Education has not approved any new sex science curricula for more than a decade.

Josh McCauley, deputy director of Teen Health Mississippi, a political and advocacy group focused on adolescent sexual and reproductive health, said the inaction meant Mississippi’s sexual content was very outdated and issues such as consent and violence in relationships were absent. .

“In 2022, when you work with curricula written in the 1990s, it’s very difficult to make a really good sex education,” McCowley said.

Even if larger curricula were approved by the state education department, there is no guarantee that schools will switch to new ones.

“Once a school chooses a curriculum, they tend to follow it,” said Scott Clements, MDE’s director of school health programs.

Many Mississippi teenage mothers are 18 or 19 years old and they are out of reach of the elementary school system. The birth rate in this age group is three times higher than in 15-17 year olds.

Although the Mississippi sex education reform is an important part of the puzzle, McCauley said the need to address serious issues such as intergenerational poverty means it is not the end of everything to combat high adolescent birth rates. in the state.

“It would be great if there was one solution, but unfortunately there are many factors that create the environment in which Mississippi has the highest adolescent birth rate in the country,” McCowley said. “It will take a lot of people from different sectors: education, health, social services, housing. It will take a lot of factors to decide what we see. ”

The national adolescent birth rate has decreased by 75% since the peak of 1991, a trend that can be attributed to reduce the level of sexual activity among young people and the wider use of contraception.

The birth rate among adolescents aged 15–19 decreased in 31 states, but increased in Mississippi in 2020. The birth rate in the states ranged from a low of 6.1 per 1,000 births in Massachusetts to a high of 27.9 in Mississippi.

However, Mississippi residents are less likely to use highly effective forms of contraception such as IUDs and implants. As of 2018, the number of patients in Title X state-funded clinics who have used such contraception was only 7% compared to 18% in the country. In recent years, people have sometimes had difficulty communicating by phone at clinics waited for admission for months or said that the attending physician should determine what means of birth control they receive.

Lawmakers adopted the state sex education law in 2011, according to which each school district chose between “abstinence-only” or “abstinence plus” curricula. Everyone should emphasize that abstinence from sex is the only method that provides reliable protection against extramarital pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

Attempts to change the law so that curricula are medically accurate or substantiated evidence have failed. One such attempt was former Sen. Sally Dottie, a Republican from Brookhaven and one of the few Republicans who supported the changes in the law.

Dotti introduced the Personal Responsibility Act in 2016, which passed through the Senate Education Committee but was never put to a vote. The bill required that sex education curricula be evidence-based, and also required that sex sciences be taught twice in elementary school, once in high school, and once in high school. There were no specific age requirements in the 2011 law.

Doty, who is now the executive director of Mississippi utilities, continues to support these changes. She also advocates moving to a policy of denial rather than consent, ending gender segregation for sex education and removing curriculum requirements in state law that prevent the use of Mississippi-based fact-based curricula used in other states. .

“I don’t think teen sex is any different in Mississippi than in any other state,” Dottie said.

Dottie said the lack of a full-fledged sex education in schools or parents who provide it at home is detrimental to a teen’s development and means that many young people get a sex education only from online pornography. Dottie said the inaction of the legislature also did not help.

“There are some real problems with the law now … it’s a difficult situation to talk about. But I don’t think anyone can look at the numbers in the state and say we shouldn’t talk about it, ”Doti said.

According to McCowley, some restrictions in state law also place an undue burden on school districts. Mississippi law requires parents to allow their child to have sex, which creates a logistical barrier that prevents children with sex-supporting parents from leaving the classroom.

“If a student isn’t selected, it’s mostly not because of parental disagreements, but because of the inefficiency of getting permission home and back,” McCowley said.

According to McCowley, the separation of boys and girls during gender education imposes another burden on schools, which is particularly detrimental to rural school districts with a shortage of staff.

The law also prohibits the display of condoms and other methods of contraception. Teachers can tell students how to use them but not show them. This has led to creative detours for defenders like Sanford Johnson, who went viral in 2012 for a video where he teaches students “how to put on a sock”.

While Johnson, now CEO of Teach Plus Mississippi, a nonprofit organization that teaches teachers to understand educational policy, believes that more comprehensive services and resources are now available to young people who are sexual than they were a decade ago, there is a lot of work that need to be done. According to the State Department of Health for 2015 A study of risky youth behavior54% of Mississippi high school students had sex, and 39% did not use a condom during their last sex.

Johnson says policies that treat young people as if they don’t deserve the truth contribute to such risky behaviors.

“We know it works,” Johnson said. “If you give children all the information, they will make better decisions.”

In 2011, the state Department of Education approved eleven sex education curricula. Of the state’s 142 county public schools, 80 chose abstinence-only instruction, and 62 chose abstinence plus, according to current MDE data.

Approved curricula differ in substance and tone. The game plan curriculum, currently used in the Wilkinson County School District, was developed in collaboration with former professional basketball player E.K. Green and has a sports theme.

The REAL Essentials WAIT curriculum is currently used in 12 school districts and describes the proper use of a male condom as a “risk” behavior in HIV / AIDS. The curriculum includes activities such as a crossword puzzle with STDs, and tips for discussion in class, such as, “When it comes to sex, men are like microwave ovens, and women are like pots!”

Ninety school districts teach Choosing the Best Program. Of these, 61 use the abstinence version only, and 26 use the abstinence plus version. Abstinence Plus curricula teach students about the risks and failure rates of non-abstinence contraceptives.

The second most popular curriculum is Draw The Line / Respect The Line, a fact-based abstinence plus curriculum that is currently used in 26 school districts across the state.

Contents and quality of instructions on sexual ed. vary by area. Although two counties may use the same program, there is no guarantee that they teach the same lessons. The State Sexual Rights Act lists six components of abstinence only, but does not require coverage of each.

Although organizations such as Mississippi Teen Health and Mississippi First have for years lobbied lawmakers to update the state’s sexual rights law, no action has been taken. In 2016 and 2021.

“The state legislature really doesn’t want to touch on something like sex education until they have to,” McCowley said.

Another concern of advocates is that the Mississippi Sexual Relations Act, however imperfect it may be, is not being enforced. McCauley said the sense of urgency and level of control that existed after the law was passed no longer exists, and probably many districts no longer comply with the law.

“Time went by, surveillance diminished, and the districts really caught it,” McCowley said. “They kind of realized they could do whatever they wanted, if anything, and there would be no consequences for that.”

Clements, whose office monitors compliance with sexual requirements, said monitoring is conducted every three years but has not occurred since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Monitoring will resume next year and includes checking which curriculum is used and which teachers are conducting the training.

Given all the challenges schools faced because of COVID-19, sex education was not a top priority, he said.

“Unfortunately, like many other things with COVID, the focus was on getting kids to get to school.” Said Clements.

Mississippi Today reporter Isabel Taft contributed to this story.

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