JACKSON, Miss. – On the basketball court of Gentry High School, students are scarce. Instead, the court is quickly filling with parents, grandparents and teachers from the small Mississippi Delta town of Indianola. Earl Watkins studies the crowd from behind a podium. His fist will pound into this podium several times before the night’s discussion ends.
“We have children having children,” says Watkins, pausing afterward for effect. “Children having children. And it’s time for us to start having these conversations and defining ways to correct this matter and to stop it early on.”
A few people in the crowd gave an amen. But Watkins’ isn’t leading a church: he’s leading a school district. About 1 in every 10 babies in the county is born to a high-school-age teen. That’s more than twice the national average. Watkins says numbers are high across this region because only a fraction of students are taught sex education.
“So we have to make sure children have correct information so they can have an opportunity at having a good life,” says Watkins.
This year, Watkins wants students to learn about reproduction, condoms, abstinence, STDs – the works. No parent in the gym openly opposed adopting a comprehensive sex education policy, and statewide, research says the vast majority of parents approve of it. Mae Nero, a grandmother who attended the meeting, says a little sex education now could mean a lot more opportunity down the line.
“They may be young, and you may say they aren’t ready for it,” says Nero. “But let’s be realistic. I live in the real world. I believe knowledge is power. The more you know the more power you have.”
Still, some Mississippi school districts will be teaching abstinence until marriage as the only method of pregnancy and disease prevention. Dr. David Daigneault, Superintendent at Grenada Public Schools in Grenada, Mississippi, says his board examined options, but decided to stick with Abstinence Only.
“This is highly charged issue,” says Daigneault. “We have had this program in place for about three years. We basically feel it is the most positive decision for our school district.”
It’s conservative local decisions like this that rile comprehensive sex education advocates, such as Debra Hauser, President of Advocates for Youth. Hauser promotes sex ed standardization and says one reason the buck get’s passed to districts is many state politicians don’t want to deal with it.
“Unfortunately those that believe that young people should not be taught be sex education, that we should just teach them to say no, that cohort are very vocal and often have the ear of some of the more conservative politicians,” says Hauser.
But, Hauser says, in the South, where the teen birth rate has long been the highest in the nation, some states are taking the reins from local districts and driving the subject into schools.
“North Carolina passed a law recently,” says Hauser. “South Carolina is working on it – not quite there yet. West Virginia is just about to move. So there are some real interesting things happening through the South.”
Nationally, less than half of states have comprehensive sex ed laws. In Mississippi, lawmakers made it a requirement to teach some form sex ed last year, though districts still get choose whether to include lessons on contraceptives.
But for all the emphasis on local decision making, the greatest stakeholders in sound sex education policy aren’t typically given a platform. Ashanique Johnson is a teenager at Gentry High School in Indianola, Mississippi. She says she can’t imagine a teen who wouldn’t want all information about sex available to them.
“I would want to know the whole truth,” says Johnson. “If they keep things covered up, it could happen and you didn’t know anything about it.”
And, Johnson says if adults won’t talk, friends will – even if they don’t yet have all the facts straight.