Any parent of a teenage student may look at the results of
the state’s High School Youth Risk Behavior survey and be slightly shocked at
the results related to sexual activity. The survey, conducted every other year
and backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows that in
2011 nearly 51 percent of participants reported having had sexual intercourse.
While that number may seem high the assistant director of
the Office of Healthy Schools in the state Department of Education, Don
Chapman, says it has actually gotten better. When the survey was first
conducted in 1993, just over 63% of participants reported having had sex.
During a presentation to the Legislative Education Subcommittee on Student Wellness,
Chapman attributed the drop to better education and teenagers being savvier
about consequences like pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Committee Co-Chair Erik Wells of Kanawha
County agreed with Chapman’s
“I think the research
has always shown that as you increase education, you actually see numbers go
down. I think students, young people want to be informed about the right
choices to make and I think that if we increase the degree of education that
will help decrease the number of people getting pregnant,” Wells said.
Teenage pregnancy is a hot-button issue in West
Virginia. The CDC reports the state leads the nation
in teen birth rates, and was the only state to actually see an increase in
those numbers in 2009. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows, in that year,
almost 13 percent of teens who said they were sexually active reported using no
measures to prevent pregnancy. In 2011, that number was down to seven and a
Chapman believes education plays a major role, but says it’s
not the only component that will ensure the current trend continues. He
believes parents and communities must also step in to encourage young people to
make better decisions when it comes to their health.
“We need to have dialogue with not only the legislators, but
also with parents and the community to engage in discussions and use our data
to make plans on how we address it,” Chapman said.
“We have an issue with adolescents participating in risky
behaviors that we have to address and quality health education is one of the
biggest factors to reduce those risky behaviors.”
But he said those risky behaviors aren’t limited to sexual activity.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey also asks students questions about substance
abuse, mental health and other wellness issues that Chapman said should all be
looked at by the school system to give students a more holistic education.
“It’s not just looking at reading scores and math scores and
saying we’re here and we need to do a better job, but we need to look at our
data with the Youth Risk Behavior Survey or any county surveys you might do and
say, this is an issue in our community,” Chapman said.
“We have an issue with adolescents engaging in risky
behavior that we have to address and a quality health education is one of the
biggest factors to reduce those behaviors.”
But Wells said time constraints and an emphasis placed on
learning core subjects can sometimes prevent those additional wellness lessons,
like nutrition or physical fitness, from being taught on a more detailed level.
He said legislators will look to the Department of Education to lead them
through these types of debates during the upcoming session.
“There are a lot of demands on our classroom teachers, but
ultimately we have to look at what’s in the best interest of the student. Is it
in the best interest of the student to have four mathematic courses even if you
might not go on to college, or is it important that you actually understand how
to have a healthy life,” Wells said. “I think the balance needs to be, you need
to have that healthy life first.”
Chapman presented the data to the subcommittee in hopes it
would request a study by the full legislature on implementing more reproductive
health education in the public school system that gives students a better
overall understanding of wellness.