Parents need schools' help on sex education

The vast majority of Kentucky parents say they rarely, if ever, talk with their teens about birth control. Sensibly enough, this silent majority also says schools should teach teens about how to protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Despite the strong support for sex education found in the Kentucky Parent Survey, many schools are letting their students and families down.

The state Department for Public Health surveyed middle and high schools in 2009 as part of developing a Teen Pregnancy Prevention Strategic Plan. Fifty-six percent or 296 of the surveyed schools responded. Of those, just 33 percent reported providing comprehensive sexuality education.

In 54 percent, an abstinence-based program was taught. Six percent reported teaching only about STDs. And 7 percent reported no sex education, even though sex ed has long been part of the state-required program of studies.

We trust the numbers have improved since the study. But even if they have, Kentucky still has a long way to go to arm our young people with the knowledge, skills and confidence to become adults before they become parents.

The disadvantages of teen pregnancy are huge. Teen mothers are significantly poorer and remain under-educated. Their children are more likely to drop out of school, have health problems, be incarcerated or unemployed and give birth as teenagers.

Happily for all, Kentucky's young people are getting the message.

Teen births in Kentucky fell almost 21 percent from 2008 to 2011.

The goal of the strategic plan was to achieve a 20 percent reduction by 2020, so something is working.

This hopeful trend should inspire educators and policy makers to emulate the successes and expand adolescents' access to the tools and support they need to make good decisions.

Kentucky still has a higher teen birth rate than the U.S. which dwarfs the rest of the industrialized world in teens having children.

One thing sex educators can count on is parents' support, according to a survey last summer of 1,006 Kentucky parents and guardians of children under 18 sponsored by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. The Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia conducted the poll, which has a margin of error of 3 percent.

While only 21 percent of parents said they regularly talk to their teens about birth control, 87 percent of parents favored teaching about birth control and 75 percent favored teaching about gender and sexual orientation issues in high schools.

At the middle school level, 64 percent of parents favored teaching about birth control methods and 63 percent favored teaching about gender and sexual orientation issues.

Kentucky parents also overwhelmingly support abstinence education, which is compatible with comprehensive sex ed, in which kids gain a better informed understanding of the advantages of waiting.

But schools can't do it all. Preventing teen pregnancy must involve parents. Believe it or not, teens say they want a trusted adult in whom they can confide.