Fewer Fairfax Teens Have Had Intercourse

By Amy Gardner and Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 15, 2008

About a third of Fairfax County teenage students say they have engaged in sexual intercourse, a lower rate than the national average, according to a biennial behavioral survey in county schools that asked questions about sexual activity this year for the first time.

The survey, released yesterday, found that nearly 33 percent of Fairfax 10th- and 12-graders reported having had intercourse, compared with almost 48 percent of 10th- and 12th-graders nationally. For all categories of age, sex and ethnicity, the survey found the rate to be lower than the national average. Students of Asian and Pacific Island descent had the lowest rate of students who reported having had intercourse.

Teen behavior in Fairfax has improved in several ways, according to the survey: Drug use, gang involvement, smoking and drinking have declined since 2001. The data revealed, however, that students who reported having had sex had a tendency toward high-risk behavior, such as having multiple sexual partners and gang involvement. The survey also found that Fairfax teens continue to feel depressed and consider suicide at slightly higher rates than across the country.

The report did not compare sexual activity of Fairfax students to the activity of others in the region or nation of similar family income levels. With more than 1 million residents, the county has the lowest per-capita crime rate in the inner suburbs of Washington, high-performing public schools and the second-highest median household income of the nation's large counties.

James R. Baugh, a pediatrician who several years ago helped develop the school system's family life education curriculum, said the county's higher income and education levels could have an impact on teen sexual activity.

"Educated people have more information at their fingertips, and they transmit that to their kids," Baugh said. "So much with teenage sexuality is about a lack of information." When information about prevention and risks is "given in a repetitive manner, they get it," he said.

County leaders said the survey underscores the effectiveness of the school system's sex education curriculum and after-school gang-prevention program. "What this report tells us by and large is that current strategies are making a difference," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the county Board of Supervisors and a leading advocate of the county's anti-gang initiative.

But officials said more progress is needed. The report comes as county and school leaders are navigating the worst budget season in a generation. Deep program cuts will be necessary to eliminate a shortfall of at least $500 million for the fiscal year that begins in July. School Superintendent Jack D. Dale has said the school system might be forced to cut funding 8.5 percent for after-school programs, such as basketball, hip-hop dance and math clubs. Such cuts, he said, would reverse progress made with high-risk students. The program would survive, but fewer activities or clubs would be offered each day.

"The more opportunities we have for kids after school, the better," said Peter Noonan, assistant superintendent for instructional services.

Denise Raybon, the county's risk-prevention coordinator, told supervisors and School Board members that the survey showed students who have participated in gang activity or used drugs have been exposed to more extracurricular activities. That means that county programs are reaching more children in high-risk groups, Raybon said.

Dale said the county's family life education curriculum emphasizes premarital sexual abstinence. In addition, he said, today's young people are "swinging back to more responsible moral values" when it comes to drugs, sex and alcohol.

Five years ago, a proposal to survey Fairfax students about sex was shot down. The School Board agreed to allow the county to include questions on sexual activity in this year's survey because longstanding opposition from Christian conservatives has died down, said School Board member Kaye Kory (Mason). She and some county officials said the survey does not present a complete picture. It included no questions about oral sex, for example.

Raybon said she was comfortable with the survey's methodology, which asked questions pulled word for word from two national behavioral surveys, one conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and one by the National Institutes of Health. The county surveyed 22,251 students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades, with proportional representation of ethnic and gender groups. The survey was conducted in February and compared with national survey results from last year. It has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Richard Moniuszko, Fairfax schools' deputy superintendent, said the survey results could be shared in health classes for middle and high school students. "They think everyone is doing drugs and having sex, and it's really not that way," he said.

To view more detailed survey results online, visit http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/youthsurvey.

Staff writer Nelson Hernandez contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company