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Official reports teens engaging in less risky sexual behavior

Comprehensive health education efforts have helped curb some risky sexual behavior among West Virginia youth over the past 20 years, a state official told a panel of lawmakers Monday.

But Don Chapman, head of the office of healthy schools for the state Department of Education, is confident that factors outside educators' control, like the Sissonville-based television show "Buckwild," aren't helping.

"It's our society in general, and our attitudes toward sexual behavior and other risky behavior, too," Chapman said.

During a presentation to a legislative committee on student wellness, Chapman said the state has seen noticeable improvement in sexual behavior among West Virginia youth.

From 1993 to 2011, the number of West Virginia high school students having sex dropped from 63 percent to 51 percent, according to data Chapman presented from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The 2011 national average was 47 percent.

The number of students not using a condom also fell from 50 percent to 40 percent - the same as the national average.  

Students not using birth control pills dropped from 80 percent to 75 percent, better than the 82 percent national average.

Those numbers reflect improvement, but it's not enough, Chapman said.

Students need comprehensive health education; Chapman explained that means combining sex education with lessons on nutrition, health and general decision-making.

There are several factors working against the school system.

With renewed emphasis and pressure to improve test scores in math, reading and science, Chapman said sometimes there isn't enough time to adequately address health education. That's reflected in poor statewide health education test scores.

Every year, students in the sixth and eighth grades and those in high school take an online test in their health education classes, Chapman said. The Health Education Assessment Project asks students questions about alcohol and drug use, growth and development, injury prevention, nutrition, physical activity and tobacco usage.

Students scored only proficiently - answering more than 80 percent of questions correctly - in the category on injury prevention, Chapman said. That trend has remained the same from 2003 to last school year.

"There's not a lot of time to do all this stuff. I'm not belittling schools; it's just where are you putting your time or your infrastructure," Chapman said. "Health has been put to the side, and the proof is in the test scores."

He said cultural factors could play a role. He specifically referenced "Buckwild," a new show from MTV that follows young adults in the Charleston area. The stars are repeatedly seen drinking, partying and conducting questionably safe activities - jumping off bridges and riding in the back of pick-up trucks, for example.

Advertisements for potentially harmful products - Chapman specifically mentioned cigarettes - also mislead students about the side effects of those products.

"Right now, everything in an adolescent's mind is good, because they see it in the media, they hear a lot about negative influences, except from their ... family, which you know sometimes adolescents don't listen a lot to their parents," Chapman said.

 The state standards are in line with national curriculum, Chapman said. If counties use the program in a comprehensive way and do so consistently during a student's career, that student has the tools to make safer decisions, he argues.

Counties also can create their own programs to combat certain problems. If there's a high teen pregnancy rate in a county, Chapman said that county can and should implement further programs to try to eradicate the problem.

The state department is working on a statewide reproductive health education logic model to better understand the program. Although the agenda for the legislative meeting mentioned a study concerning health education in the state, no action was taken.


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