County schools get life choices grant

Sep. 19, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

Lee County Schools will receive about $58,000 to teach children in grades 4-6 good life choices thanks to $800,000 the federal government gave North Carolina recently — an unexpected extension of an existing grant — to ramp up abstinence education in rural areas.

Lee County had the seventh-highest rate of teen pregnancy in the state in 2011, the most recent year with data available, when 130 girls ages 15-19 became pregnant.

Lee County Schools Director of Student Resources Johnnye Waller said this grant — which is in its fourth year after having been extended by Obamacare, although it was reduced by about 50 percent — will help students learn to abstain from sex and other “risky behavior” like drinking, drugs, unhealthy eating, bullying and gang life.

“We use these funds to support children learning to make good choices, whether it be drugs or gangs or guns or sex choices,” Waller said.

Chief Deputy Randall Butler, who oversees student resource officers for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, said his officers don’t have any formal programs set up to talk to students about drinking, gangs or other problems. However, he said, they all have specialized training to teach about those subjects — and something might be formed if there’s a rash of fights, arrests or gang activity.

There was a fight at Southern Lee High School on Monday after which three 14-year-old boys were sent to court; it was at least the second fight at the school that officers have responded to this year, according to police reports. Also Monday, an 18-year-old student at Bragg Street Academy reportedly was arrested and taken into custody for unspecified disorderly conduct. Butler acknowledged those incidents but said they’re not out of the ordinary.

“There’s been a couple fights already this year, and of course [with] all of them, we send somebody over to report,” Butler said. “But overall I think things are going well. We’ve gotten some good feedback.”

Outside of the schools, the Coalition for Families in Lee County offers two programs related to teen pregnancy. The first is an after-school pregnancy prevention program for middle and high school students, with about 180 participants. The group also holds classes for pregnant or parenting teens, teaching them how to be good parents and also encouraging them to graduate despite their challenges.

Waller said getting teen mothers to graduate is a major goal because having a high school diploma makes a huge difference in the real world. This grant helps with that goal, she said, by allowing the district to employ a specialized social worker to counsel students and coordinate educational programs that will hopefully prevent sexual activity and, by extension, pregnancy.

It’s unclear, however, just how much good the abstinence education grant funding — which has totaled nearly $6 million to the state so far — actually does. National data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that states with the highest teen pregnancy rates, for example, are also those with no required sex-ed or that emphasize abstinence, and Waller said the grant requires regular reporting about what schools are using it for, but not on the actual effects those programs have.

Furthermore, multiple studies have found fundamental issues with abstinence programs. A federal report in 2007, for example, found that abstinence-only education has no effect on abstinence rates. And last year, an international study found that 86 percent of a recent decline in teen pregnancy rates in America could be attributed to more frequent use of contraception, compared to the remaining 14 percent of the decline attributed to fewer teens engaging in intercourse.

But despite criticisms of abstinence sex-ed, both the state government and this federal grant promote it. North Carolina requires schools to teach middle school students to abstain from sexual activity unless in a faithful marriage or else face potential physical, mental, emotional and social harm. In high school, the curriculum also expands to give students lessons on preventing sexual violence and abusive relationships.

The main focus in local schools, Waller said, is “making sure students know the dangers of making unhealthy choices.”

She added that students who do become pregnant — or cause another to become pregnant — are often in line for hardships their non-pregnant peers won’t face, and that prevention strategies can even vary from school to school depending on the culture.

“The counselors are constantly monitoring within their schools to see what kind of information the children need based on the behavior they’re seeing,” she said.