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"Near crisis" STD rate prompts CASD to eye sex ed

Written by Jim Hook, Public Opinion Online | Feb 2, 2016 2:30 PM
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(Chambersburg) -- Get over the giggling. 

The lack of sex education in Pennsylvania and Chambersburg Area School District may be having serious consequences for teenagers and young adults.

"We're almost at a crisis point with sexually transmitted diseases in our teenaged population," said Joanne Cochran, president and CEO of Keystone Health. "Our kids do not have a good understanding of their bodies. Our kids think they are not going to get sick, or get pregnant."

Franklin County in 2014 had 286 cases of chlamydia diagnosed in people 15 to 24 years old, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. That's three-fourths of the cases in the county population. The age group also had 35 cases of gonorrhea and 4 cases of syphilis. The actual numbers are probably larger because STDs tend to be under reported.

Chlamydia also is infecting a greater portion of the county population today than it did 15 years ago, according to the health department. The STD infects both men and women, but can cause serious health problems, infertility and even death in women.

"The risk of chlamydia among adults is particularly concerning because there often are no symptoms, so it is widely under reported and under treated," Cochran said.

The current emphasis on abstinence and safe sex has been ineffective in slowing the spread of chlamydia and other STDs, according to Cochran.

"We need to be sure kids are getting the right education," she said. "It's obvious they aren't. We need to offer the other options. Now we talk about abstinence and that's it."

Keystone STD Services in six months provided free treatment to 125 people with chlamydia, half of them 15 to 24 years old. Another 20 were treated for gonorrhea and five for syphilis.

The numbers are "very scary," and three times the state average, according to Cochran.

"I don't think they have a clue how serious this is," she said. "When they come to the clinic, they are pretty well infected. They don't want to tell anybody."

A visit to the clinic can take an hour, she said. A patient learns that germs can be transmitted in a variety of sex acts and that the risk of pregnancy might be greater than he or she thinks.

"It's all tied together - drinking, sexual activity and risky behavior," Cochran said. "To go to the STD clinic you do not need parental permission. Any kid who shows up, we have to treat. Our concern is the health and safety of these children."

Most sex education classes in Pennsylvania secondary schools teach the importance of correctly using a condom, but at the same time most fail to teach how to use one correctly or where to get one, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta. In 2013 nearly half of U.S. high school students  reported that they had had sexual intercourse. Two out of every five sexually active teens did not use a condom.

Chambersburg Area School District is in the process of evaluating its sex education program.  An update will be presented to the school board later this year, according to Superintendent Joseph Padasak.

Any report promises to ruffle feathers.

"There's a big disconnect between the elders running the community and the children," Padasak said.

Youth sexuality isn't going away. Sexting was big in high school a few years ago and has moved to middle-school students, according to Padasak.

CASD is among 15 school districts in Pennsylvania chosen three years ago to participate in the CDC grant program 1308 DASH.

The goal is to improve sexual health, and to reduce the risk of teen pregnancy, STD and HIV, according to Nick Slotterback, education and physical education advisor with the state Department of Education.

CASD has a very limited policy regarding sexual health and that could be the reason for the area's high rate of STD infection, he said.

Padasak said CASD likely was chosen for the program because of its poverty level. Half the children in school district live in single-family households.

In 15 years the part of Franklin County living in poverty has increased from 8 percent to more than 10 percent. Those eligible for medical assistance jumped from two of every 25 residents in 1998 to three of every 25 in 2012.

The DASH grant allows CASD teachers to attend training by paying for their travel and substitute teachers. CASD gets a total of $23,000 over a five-year period. CASD is in its third year of the program.

CASD lacks a comprehensive sex education program, Padasak said.

"It's hit or miss," he said. "My nurses need more direction. They are fearful," when talking about sex to students.

The district is "sitting on" a supply of male and female condoms as well as brochures illustrating how they are used, according to Padasak.

Children "get the sex talk" in fifth grade and learn about human sexuality in eighth-grade health, he said. High school offers a physical education elective about parenting. The popular course has one teacher and more than 100 students wanting to take it.

"We'd like to get the pregnancy rate down to improve the graduation rate," Padasak said. "We are starting to see generational issues."

Why should schools teach sexual education?

"Our churches and homes aren't doing it," Cochran said. "These kids are getting it (information about sex) on the streets. If a kid has an STD, he or she has pain or fever. They are sick" and can't concentrate in school.

The foundation for sexual education is set in elementary school where children learn about hygiene, germs and how diseases are transmitted, according to Slotterback. They learn about relationships with family and friends.

"We hurt kids when we don't talk about it," Cochran said. "Sex is a relationship, an intimate relationship. This is about educating kids to keep them healthy and safe."

An aim of the CASD grant program is to develop a referral service so students can access sexual health services. Some Pennsylvania schools have school-based services, such as Hamilton Health Center at Foose and Downy schools in Harrisburg. Others, such as Erie, have clinics just off school property.

"We should have a clinic in the school," Cochran said. "We just want to offer the service."

Padasak said he hopes the grant effort will give "a tool to discuss sexual activity with their children."

Jim Hook, 717-262-4759


This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between Public Opinion Online and WITF. 

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