This fall, Oklahoma’s second-largest city will begin a comprehensive pregnancy prevention initiative in its public schools. The Tulsa school board voted to approve the new sex ed program on Tuesday night.
Under the new program, three outside organizations — Youth Services of Tulsa, the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, and the Tulsa City-County Health Department — will offer comprehensive sex ed courses to 7th, 9th, and 11th grade students at four different schools. The course is optional, and parents must give their consent in order for their children to participate. If the pilot program is successful, it will be expanded to other schools in the area, and the outside educators will eventually pass off the curriculum to public school teachers.
“We really view the teen pregnancy prevention program as a drop out prevention program. This is really going to help students stay in school, finish school, go onto college, get good jobs, make Tulsa a better place to live,” Kim Schutz, the director of the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, explained.
Oklahoma now has the fourth-highest teen birth rate in the country. In Tulsa specifically, some zip codes have teen birth rates that are more than double the national average. Although teen birth rates have been steadily declining over the past several years, some deeply red states aren’t experiencing as much success in this area — partly because they still lack adequate sexual education requirements. There aren’t any sex ed requirements for Oklahoma’s public schools, and the state currently leaves it up to each school district to decide what type of information they want to offer. There’s nothing to prevent schools from providing no information about birth control or STDs whatsoever, or from teaching inaccurate information about sexual health topics.
“I think ignoring the issue is something we don’t have the luxury of doing any longer,” Schutz noted.
Steve Mayfield, the director of constituent and student affairs at Tulsa Public Schools (TPS), pointed out that this type of program is very unusual for the area’s schools. Discussions of sex are still seen as very taboo. “I can’t remember it ever being a topic in TPS — even embedded in a biology class or something — before,” Mayfield, who has worked for the school district for nearly 45 years, told the Tulsa World.
But he said he likes that the new course balances information about delaying sex with accurate information about how to practice safe sex. “I’ve read the entire curriculum, and the first priority is abstinence. The key to this that I really like is it shows you the HIV and disease rates. Kids don’t think in those terms, but they need to,” Mayfield explained.
That attitude is reflected in national public opinion polls on the subject. The vast majority of Americans, even parents in the deep South, agree that sex ed classes can strike a balance between encouraging teens to make responsible choices and giving them information about birth control. And other states have already demonstrated the positive effects of this approach. For example, after California expanded comprehensive sex ed and teen pregnancy prevention programs, its teen birth rate plummeted by 60 percent.