She’s just 11 years old, but Nyiray Thomas already knows what she would say if someone ever tries to convince her to have unprotected sex, even just once.
“I would say no, because I don’t want to have a child,” she said. “I want to achieve my goals.”
Nyiray was one of 10 participants in a recent workshop organized by Planned Parenthood of Delaware focused on educating middle school students about sex education and healthy decision-making. The program, Making Proud Choices!, aims to give younger adolescents the knowledge and decision-making skills they need to reduce their risk of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and pregnancy.
It’s part of the Personal Responsibility Education Program, or PREP, a national program designed to teach young people about abstinence and contraception. The evidence-based program, which also includes another component for high school students, is funded through the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It differs from past sexuality education programs that promoted an abstinence-only approach.
States have the opportunity to apply for $45 million in funding for sexuality education, and Delaware has received $250,000 for the last two fiscal years.
Public health experts say the higher-than-normal rate of sexual activity among Delaware youth indicates there’s good reason to start the conversation early, but also to keep talking so parents and teens are comfortable.
Fifty-nine percent of the state’s high school students report they have had sexual intercourse at least once, according to the results of the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, a federal school-based survey. That’s the highest rate in the country, far above the 47 percent national average.
Delaware high school students also are more likely to be sexually active than their peers. In the risk survey, 9 percent of students said they had sex for the first time before they were 13 years old. Another 43 percent said they had engaged in sexual intercourse within the last three months, compared to 34 percent of high school students nationally.
“This is not the kind of First State we want to be,” said Catherine Dukes, vice president of education and training for the Sexuality Education Training Institute of Planned Parenthood of Delaware. The institute is administering the PREP program in Delaware.
The goals of PREP are to provide sexuality education for at-risk youth, prevent unplanned pregnancies, STDs and HIV infections and also increase access to health services for youth. Rebecca Roberts, education and training manager for Planned Parenthood’s Sexuality Education Training Institute, also is training local educators and personnel with other community agencies so they can bring the program to the youths they work with.
Information is presented over four, two-hour meetings, with students eligible for a gift card after their completion of the class. Although the topics are serious, including STD education and contraceptive effectiveness, they are presented in a fun manner, including word activities, role playing and video vignettes.
Last year, 684 Delaware students completed a PREP program, and the goal is for 700 students to finish this year, Dukes said. In addition, 44 educators and staff from the Department of Education and 47 youth service providers also received training to present PREP materials.
Dukes said the education programs are not intended to replace any family values education that students receive from their parents. Students are encouraged to share details from the class with parents and adult caretakers in their lives so the discussion can continue.
“We give them the information they need: negotiating abstinence for those who are waiting as well as condom use for those who are choosing to be sexually active,” Dukes said. “We refer them to the parents so they can clarify those values. We make sure we’re not putting our values out there.”
Teaching students about sex doesn’t mean they’re immediately going to go out and be sexually active, Roberts said, but it can help to clarify some of the conflicting messages they’re already getting from the media, peers and their own hormones.
“They are hungry for information,” she said.
During the recent class for middle-school students, held after school in a back room at People’s Settlement Association Senior Center in Wilmington, kids talked frankly about the possible repercussions of having unprotected sex, how to put on a condom and how to handle a situation in which they’re being pressured to have unprotected sex.
The atmosphere was light-hearted, with lots of jokes and smiles – particularly during the conversational role-playing scenarios – but their attention was squarely on Roberts as she spoke.
“The idea is that you’re not just giving them information and hoping they make better choices,” Dukes said. “We want this to have a long-lasting impact.”
It also helps kids to know there are others like them who have questions and aren’t afraid to find out accurate answers.
“It really fuels the camaraderie to be together,” said Alfie Moss, a community health ambassador affiliated with Christiana Care Health System, focusing on Wilmington’s East Side. “And in the group, it gives them permission to understand.”