D.C. students say schools' sex education is antiquate

David A. Catania, chairman of the D.C. Council Committee on Health, had a hearing Wednesday on the findings of the Youth Sexual Habit Project.
David A. Catania, chairman of the D.C. Council Committee on Health, had a hearing Wednesday on the findings of the Youth Sexual Habit Project. (Kevin Wolf/associated Press)
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By Darryl Fears
Thursday, October 22, 2009

D.C. public high school students who participated in focus groups on sexual health said they were unimpressed with the District's sex education curriculum, do not trust the school nurses who are charged with counseling them about disease prevention and disdain the brand of condoms distributed by schools.

The students, particularly girls, said they were too suspicious or embarrassed to talk to school nurses about sex or ask about condoms. "It's like talking to your mom," one student said.

Those were some of the findings of a survey conducted by the Youth Sexual Health Project, funded by the D.C. Council Committee on Health, whose chairman, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), had a hearing on the issue Wednesday.

"This has never been done by a committee," but "it's been an elephant in the room, an unaddressed issue for years: What are we doing with respect to the sexual health of our children? No one wanted to tackle it," Catania said.

The survey consisted of 10 focus groups totaling about 250 high school students and was administered between April and this month. Because of the survey's small sample of the system's 12,000 high school students, the findings could not be generalized to represent that entire population.

Researchers said the participants' responses were unusually frank and provided valuable insights into how to approach sexual health and education for teenagers who think the curriculum is antiquated and out of touch with their experiences.

Sex education and condom distribution in high schools are key, health officials say, because 13 percent of students who were screened for sexually transmitted diseases last year tested positive, according to the health department. Sexually transmitted diseases increase the risk of contracting HIV.

Health officials said frank discussions about sexual relationships are the foundation of sex education. But students surveyed said the instruction they get doesn't address the real-life situations they encounter, such as how to talk to a partner who constantly pushes for unprotected sex.

Girls said they were unlikely to carry condoms for fear of being labeled promiscuous.

Students had another reason for passing up the free condoms available at school. Durex condoms, the brand widely distributed by the Health Department under a contract, are considered lame and more likely to pop or break, students said. They said they prefer Trojan or Magnum.

Youths "have very strong opinions about particular brands of condoms," the researchers wrote. "These opinions . . . factually correct or not, play an important role in a youth's decision to use a product."

Students in the survey also said that school nurses were "judgmental and untrustworthy," making it unlikely that teens would seek their advice.

Wilson High School students Folami Irby-Mottley, 18, and Leslie Cameron, 17, testified that the nurse at their school responded icily when they asked for condoms. "She didn't seem very positive," Irby-Mottley said. The students said they asked for the condoms to see whether student rumors about the nurse's cold behavior were true.

Researchers turned to a small focus group of six nurses to determine whether there was evidence of a disconnect. In spite of a contract that requires nurses to promote educational programs on STDs and health, the researchers said, "there is a lack of clarity as to the role of school nurses with respect to the delivery of sexual health information."

Nurses said that, with only 200 nurses in the school system -- about one for every 245 students -- they have little time to counsel students about anything. Researchers recommended that nurses and teachers work with student leaders to determine how to engage their peers. For example, text messages with sexual health information could be sent to students' cellphones and advice could be stored and downloaded from a Facebook page.

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