By Marsha Meeks Kelly

In another life, I was a public school teacher. English, math and eventually “Skills for Adolescence” were the subjects that consumed my days along with an average of 140 seventh graders.

Every day I worked hard to meet the needs of my students in “inner-city” public schools in Mississippi. I remember the tears of the student who came to me to discuss her pregnancy and how she was going to tell her parents and whether she should get married at 13 years of age.

That year we started a “Peer Ears” program, a peer counseling program, and the next year we started survival skills classes called “Skills for Adolescence.” Too many pregnancies and too many sexually-transmitted diseases forced our school district to incorporate classes to educate our students about their life decisions.

Reading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report on the sexual and reproductive health of young people was depressing. So little progress has been made here! Twenty years ago several concerned Mississippians formed a statewide coalition to work with the legislature to ensure a comprehensive K-12 health education curriculum, but we still do not have even a pilot program offering students sex education, despite attempts to institute such a program in the 2009 legislative session.

The CDC reports that Mississippi is still among the top states in the nation in the spread of HIV and AIDS among pre-teens. We also have the highest birth rate in the nation for mothers ages 10-14 and 15-17, and have seen a spike in sexually-transmitted diseases. Several government studies have confirmed that about 60 percent of Mississippi high school students are sexually active, but most do not use birth control. The statistics are heart-rending and constitute a moral mandate for action by the leadership of this state.

Mississippi can change such statistics, but like every problem, leaders must step up, understand the issues, look at possible curriculums, get educated and educate our citizens and our youth.

In all my years in public service, I have always been more interested in the opinions of folks in the field rather than critics on the sidelines. I ask the state legislature, the Governor, and the Lieutenant Governor to once more convene a working group focused on comprehensive sex education. This group should include educators, parents, students, social workers and health professionals who deal with youth to ensure that people on the frontlines of teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS prevention are at the planning table. There are models from other states, like the F.L.A.S.H. program in Washington State, which can be considered.

Young people in Mississippi make tough decisions every day. We can’t be with them all the time, but we can increase their ability to make informed, responsible decisions by giving them the information they need. Comprehensive sex education delays sexual activity and promotes healthier life choices, according to a review of research on the subject by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

It is time to set aside emotions and focus on filling the educational gap that jeopardizes the future of so many of our youth. We need a model program that can be set in place across the state. Our young people are counting on us; their health and their future are at stake.
Kelly is the recently retired executive director of the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Mississippi Forum 10/09


Unknown said...

As usual, Marsha Kelly states her case with verve and passion, tackling the issues that hit us near and dear to our hearts. Thank goodness we have her leadership here in Mississippi!