NAMPA — As young East Valley Middle School students wiggle in their seats, Christina Barker, the director of the No Regrets sexual education program, asks them what puberty is going to do to their bodies.
Between a few giggles and whispers, one student answers.
“More hair,” he said before the class started laughing.
Barker is used to laughter as she clicks through PowerPoint slides of the human body. She's used to giggles as she talks about all the funny and embarrassing things puberty will do to a child’s body. Barker teaches sex education at more than 22 schools in Canyon County and the surrounding areas.
While the younger students have a good laugh, educators like Barker take the idea of sexual health seriously.
According to the 2013 Idaho Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted by the Idahos Department of Education, 39 percent of all Idaho high school students have had sexual intercourse and 60 percent of all 12th grade students have had sexual intercourse at least once. Nineteen percent of all Idaho 9th grade students have had sexual intercourse.
The average age at which teens start having sex is 17.
Nationally the average percentage of sexually active high school students is 46 percent, with 64 percent of high school seniors having had sex at least once, according to the 2013 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Among Idaho high school students who had sexual intercourse during the previous three months, 20 percent reported they drank alcohol or used drugs beforehand,” the survey stated.
The national average of high school students who had sexual intercourse after drinking alcohol or using drugs is 22 percent.
Among Idaho high school students who had sexual intercourse during the previous three months, 43 percent reported they or their partner did not use a condom. That is compared to the national average of 41 percent.
Almost 40 percent of Idaho senior high school students admitted to having sent or received nude pictures in text messages.
According to the national 2013 Idaho Youth Risk Behavior Survey, an average 14 percent of teens in the states were not taught about AIDS or HIV in the classroom.
In Idaho, over 17 percent of teens said they did not learn about HIV or AIDS in the classroom.
In 2013, 315 teen girls 15 to 19 years old from Canyon County became pregnant. Out of those 315, 68 were ages 15 to 17. The other 247 were 18 or 19. These numbers were recorded by Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics. Many of these women drop out of school and end up on welfare and Medicaid.
"Each year in the United States almost 750,000 teenage girls become pregnant and roughly 230,000 teenagers obtain an abortion," the Youth Risk Behavior Survey stated. "In Idaho, there were 1,197 out-of wedlock births and 328 abortions among women aged 15 to 19 in 2011. Early sexual activity is associated with unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection, and negative effects on social and psychological development."
Many advocate groups, like those who work for the Centro de Comunidad y Justicia, believe proper sex education is the only way to keep teens from making risky and negative choices in their lives. This includes education on pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, birth control options and healthy relationships.
For many states, including Idaho, sex health education is decided by each individual school district and sometimes each individual school. Students in the Caldwell School District may be taught less about birth control and safe practices than students in the Nampa School District.
Idaho’s Department of Education created a list of standards for each grade regarding health education, which each district is expected to follow.
From sixth to eighth grade, the state requires educators give information and discussion of sexually transmitted diseases, stating HIV and AIDS are important components of this content area. Information should be factual, medically accurate, objective and age-appropriate.
Middle school students are also expected to be taught about growth and development. This includes the stages of life, changes that occur during puberty and changes in relationships with others. Education should include healthy relationships and sexuality, consequences of sexual activity, encouragement of abstinence from sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, pregnancy prevention and methods of prevention.
In high school, educators are required to give accurate information and discussion of sexually transmitted diseases. HIV infection and AIDS information is a necessary and important components of this. The state also requires health teachers to discuss healthy family planning and relationships.
“Family living includes the following topics: healthy relationships and sexuality, encouragement of abstinence from sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases including HIV and their prevention, as well as methods of preventing pregnancy,” the Idaho Education Code Title 33, Chapter 16, Sections 1608-1611 states. “Knowledge of factual, medically accurate and objective information is important along with personal, legal and economic responsibilities of parenthood and other consequences of sexual activity.”
No Regrets is a nonprofit education organization that teaches abstinence-based education to multiple schools in southwestern Idaho.
Barker, the director of the No Regrets program, teaches middle school and high school students throughout Idaho about sexual health and relationships. The program started in 2001 and teaches about 4,000 students a year.
“Our mission is to empower youth through factual, abstinence-based education,” Barker said.
The program is free to the community and school districts and is funded by community donations.
Barker said that once a year, from seventh to 12th grade, No Regrets teaches three or four health classes in lieu of the students' regularly scheduled physical education or health class. In middle school, students learn about puberty, hygiene, anatomy and physiology. In high school, students learn about sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, healthy relationships and more.
The program is in line with the state's education standards. During each class, students are given the opportunity to write down anonymous questions on a card to be answered during a No Regrets class.
“Sexual risk avoidance education is focused on optimal health outcomes to the whole person,” Barker said. “Not just physically but also emotional, intellectually and socially. Our primary focus is not on managing risks, but managing relationships and behaviors. Abstinence is the only 100 percent way to avoid unplanned pregnancy and STDs.
"Contraception, reproductive systems and STDs are discussed in an age-appropriate manner," Barker said. "Healthy and unhealthy relationships, boundaries, goal setting and standards are also discussed. My goal is to empower and educate students to make healthy choices to avoid possible risks of sexual activity.”
Barker said there are no birth control examples given in class because what works for one individual may not work for someone else.
In most classrooms, students only learn about condoms as a way to prevent pregnancy, besides abstinence. There are no condom demonstrations given in Idaho classrooms.
In the No Regrets Program, no birth control demonstrations are given, but students do learn about multiple birth control methods. They are also given information about local health clinics to share with their parents.
“If the main focus was on contraception, this could possibly lead to encouragement or engaging in sexual activity at an earlier age in some,” Barker said. “And what works for one person may not work for another. Giving students current statistics and education and practical ways to implement these tools in their relationships works.”
Local charter schools have taken their own route when it comes to sexual education. While some, such as Idaho Arts Charter, use programs like No Regrets, others opt out of sex education.
“While Liberty and Victory cover topics such as anatomy in biology classes and personal hygiene and health in the P.E. classes, neither (Liberty Charter nor Victory Charter) has a sexual education program,” said Susan Larson, Liberty Charter’s secretary and registrar. “ It has been communicated at various times with parents that if they would like to offer or teach a voluntary sexual education program for students either before or after regular school hours, the schools could offer their facilities for such a program. No parents, up to this point, have offered to do so.”
Liberty Charter staff and Victory Charter staff declined to comment further on their health courses.
Thomas Jefferson Charter School could not be reached for comment.
LARGER SCHOOL DISTRICTS
While Nampa and Vallivue school districts use the free No Regrets program to cover sexual health classes, two other districts take an individual approach.
Jodi Mills, acting superintendent for the Caldwell School District, said while the district follows the Idaho guidelines, each class is strictly abstinence-based education. This means no birth control demonstrations are given.
“We discussed this with parents of students and came to the conclusion that this is what the community wants,” Mills said.
At the Middleton School District, abstinence-based education is the preferred method. Classes are taught to middle school and high school students by their physical education teachers or health teachers.
“We follow the state guidelines closely,” said Robin Gilbert, director of instruction and student achievement.
Gilbert said the Middleton School District, one of the fastest-growing districts in the area, has abstinence-based sex education classes with no birth control demonstrations. Students in high school are required to take one health class, which would include a week of sexual education. While diseases like HIV and AIDS are discussed in these classes, each teacher may use discretion on how information is given to the students.
“We believe discussion of birth control is a family matter,” Gilbert said. “These are things parents should discuss with children at home.”