Jackson, MS —
To fight Mississippi's highest-in-the-nation teen birth rate, is it best to give young people detailed information about contraception or to just tell them to abstain from sex before marriage?
Separate conferences Thursday at the Jackson Convention Complex offered competing views.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant's office sponsored a conference that was, at times, like a church service complete with emotional testimony from young adults who regret having been sexually active when they were teens.
An earlier conference was sponsored by the Women's Fund of Mississippi. Educators, social workers and health care professionals discussed "abstinence-plus" sex education courses that are starting to be taught in 71 school districts. The courses include exercises to teach middle school students techniques for saying no to alcohol, sex or other things that make them uncomfortable. For older students, the courses also include information about contraception and the biology of human reproduction.
Bryant advocates an abstinence-until-marriage approach, and 81 school districts are teaching abstinence-only courses, under a new state law that requires each district to teach some sort of sex education courses starting this academic year. Three districts have a combination, with abstinence-only for younger students and abstinence-plus for older ones.
A racially mixed group of about 200 teenagers attended Bryant's conference, and he told them to delay parenthood until they're grown.
"If you want to fail in life, if you want to end up being on Medicaid — CHIPS and Medicaid and food stamps the rest of your life — if you never want to have a career, then all you've got to do is drop high school and have a baby," Bryant said. "And I can almost assure you that's what's going to happen to you."
CHIP is the state Children's Health Insurance Program, a government insurance program that covers children whose families make slightly too much money to qualify for Medicaid. Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the nation. With a population of just under 3 million, the state had 640,427 residents on Medicaid and 70,501 children on CHIP in August.
Bryant told boys at his conference they should be ashamed to ever be called "baby daddy," the slang term for a male who helps create a baby but takes little responsibility for the child.
"Really? Baby daddy? Now, young men, is that what you want to be called?" Bryant said. "Do you want to put that on your letterman's shirt? Put that on the back of your jersey? 'Baby daddy?'"
Some of the teens in the audience shook their heads.
A 24-year-old Jackson resident, Lakeisha McLaurin, said at the governor's conference that she lived in a hotel when she was in high school, partly because she left home at 17 to have a sexual relationship with a 27-year-old man. She said the man gave her three sexually transmitted diseases. McLaurin said she had a baby with a different man when she was 21, and he left her. Since then, she said she has found God and turned her life around.
"It's up to you to keep your legs closed, to keep your skirt down, to keep your pants up," McLaurin said.
At the Women's Fund conference, the registered nurse for the East Tallahatchie School District said parents and students have embraced the abstinence-plus curriculum. Stephanie Coker said students have been happy to get straightforward answers to questions, and she has been happy to dispel false information students have about what does or doesn't cause pregnancy — information she said students were getting from older siblings or cousins, or the Internet. For example, she said, one eighth-grade boy who had told teachers he's already sexually active said he didn't know that condoms have expiration dates.
Mississippi law requires parental permission for a child to take sex education. Boys and girls are taught separately.
LaKesha Pollard, a teacher at Powell Middle School in Jackson, said the abstinence-plus courses are giving students important health information.
"I've been teaching for 11 years, and I've seen fifth-graders, sixth-graders — I've even seen fourth graders that got pregnant," Powell said.
Kameisha Smith, a 17-year-old from Holmes County, says young people need to be fully informed about birth control. She said 6th graders have become pregnant in her community.
"I'm not a teen parent but at the same time, my mother had me while she was a teen and we've not had the discussion about sex," Smith said.