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Pittsburgh schools' sex ed won't stop at birds, bees

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By Bill Zlatos
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Two teens waiting outside Oliver High School cradled their bundled babies and reflected on a sex education program that will start in Pittsburgh Public Schools this fall.

"Maybe I would know stuff and not be in the predicament I'm in right now, with this here baby," said Beth Carter, 16, a junior from the North Side. She drops off her 9-month-old daughter, Jaliyah, at Oliver's day care center while she attends classes. The center keeps nine babies and has a waiting list for three more.

The district's former policy was to teach students about abstinence only. But a team of teachers, parents, administrators and community leaders found health teachers were unclear about the policy. Some teachers answered whatever questions students asked; others did not.

Under the policy approved last week, students will be taught that abstinence is the sure way to avoid pregnancy and disease. But they'll also learn about contraception, dating and alternative lifestyles.

Jaliyah's father, Raghib Dolphin, 16, of the North Side doesn't think students need information about dating.

"If you're 16 or over," said Dolphin, a junior at Oliver, "you should be able to distinguish a good relationship from a bad relationship."

Dashia Jenkins, 17, an Oliver senior from Marshall-Shadeland, said the curriculum gave scant information.

"We mainly just talked about the body," she said. "That's all. They need to talk about teen pregnancy."

In the late 1980s, the board adopted a policy authorizing school health clinics after a storm of public opposition. The new sex education policy, though, barely raised a whimper.

Frederick Bernardi, 54, of Brighton Heights might typify the changing attitude in the community. His son Joseph, 16, attends Oliver and his daughter Ashley, 14, goes to Art Rooney School.

"They should be a little bit more liberal on it," he said of the curriculum being developed.

Between 1991 and 2006, teen birth rates here dropped dramatically, mirroring national trends. The city's birth rate among females ages 15 to 19 plunged from 58.8 per 1,000 in 1991 to 32.6 per 1,000 in 2006. By comparison, Allegheny County's teen birth rate, including the city, dropped from 39 births per 1,000 in 1991 to 24 per 1,000 in 2006.

The proportion of teens giving birth who are unwed remained relatively unchanged during that period. In 2006, 99 percent of teens in the city who gave birth were unmarried, as were 97 percent of teens in the county who gave birth.

"There's been a lot of effort over the past decade and a half to reduce teen pregnancy — a lot of education, also using contraceptives and other means of birth control," said Guillermo Cole, spokesman for the county Health Department.

As part of Pittsburgh Public Schools' new program, students will learn about human development, relationships, personal skills such as decision-making and assertiveness, sexual behavior, sexual health and society and culture. That includes such topics as sexual orientation, marriage and life commitments, sexual dysfunction, sexual abuse and gender roles.

"We don't condone or promote any lifestyle," said Jerri Lippert, chief academic officer, who will lead a team developing the curriculum. "We don't condone or promote any religious belief. We present it all from a scientific or medical approach."

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