Sanford High School junior Collette Thomas talked to her friends about sex. She knew about birth control options and she made her decision responsibly, but she still got pregnant. And while she loves her 9-month-old daughter Aubree, she recognizes that her life is more challenging now — and forever changed.
A new survey shows, however, that the number of teens in Collette’s situation is dropping, something she finds surprising. According to a survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, teen pregnancy rates in Maine are down 51 percent from 1991, following a national trend.
Advocates are crediting an increase in awareness of birth control options and science-based sexual education classes throughout the state. In addition, during the past decade, the state began requiring that students like Collette have access to more than just abstinence-only messages, a step that may have resulted in the lower numbers seen today.
Education in the classrooms
Parents, teachers and health professionals throughout Maine know that students are talking about sex, they know that students are having sex. So, instead of trying to stop it, they are working to get information into the hands of teens as early as middle school, Lynette Johnson, director of prevention programs for Maine Family Planning, said.
In 2002, the state passed the Comprehensive Family Life Act, which guarantees students the right to comprehensive sex education. Under the law, teens throughout Maine have access to medically accurate, nonbiased information about sexual health from teachers and others at their schools.
Johnson noted it is up to school districts to determine how and when they are going to teach reproductive health. The state doesn’t mandate how long or what they have to teach about the sometimes uncomfortable topic.
“[The law] is vague enough that some school districts look at the time they have and do what they can,” Johnson said. “Many of them are well-intentioned, but it is only a semester.”
But schools are trying — about 30 schools throughout the state are working with Maine Family Planning, asking for resources and advice.
Collette had just found out she was pregnant when teachers at her school first started talking about sex. She found herself wishing it had been sooner.
“They don’t talk about it in classes. Some people talk about it, but it’s just with their friends, I think it would have been helpful,” she said, adding that she didn’t realize missing a single dose of your birth control pill could result in a pregnancy.
Access to reproductive health
For many students it takes a knowledgeable friend bringing them to a reproductive health center. It’s a role Collette has found herself in a few times since having her daughter.
“I have a few friends who are still virgins … I tell them, ‘I don’t want you following in my footsteps, it’s not easy, it’s not just playing house,’” she said.
Some schools, such as Portland Public Schools, Maranacook Community School, Noble High School and Calais High School, offer reproductive health services right on campus through health centers. But most offer a few days to weeks of instruction, leaving it up to parents or the peer-to-peer communication that Collette experiences, to fill the gaps.
According to Maine Family Planning, by the time Maine high school students are seniors, 65 percent are sexually active. So Johnson and others want those students, especially the younger ones who may not be having sex yet but are thinking about it, to know the science.
“We want them to know how the body works, how the reproductive system works, how babies are made, that’s what’s effective, it can’t just be a bunch of information,” she said.
Skill building also is key. It’s important to have students practice using skills they should know before deciding to have sex, like open communication, proper use of condoms and what a healthy relationship looks like.
Keeping the momentum
Looking forward, Johnson hopes Maine schools will continue making reproductive health a priority, taking steps to make sure health programs aren’t cut. She also wants all Maine youth to have access to confidential reproductive health services, especially since not everyone can balance life, school and a baby as well as Collette.
“There’s plenty of examples of teens who have an unplanned pregnancy then have been successful,” Johnson said. “But the odds are against them, so we hope they can delay a pregnancy until they’re ready for it.”
Collette said she is in a position to graduate from high school early, and hopes to study culinary arts at York County Community College. She said her daughter keeps her going and has helped her straighten out her life, allowing her to set a positive example for other teens.
But she’d love to see more done for the students who do find themselves trying to navigate the sometimes rocky road that is parenting. She wants schools to take an interest in teen parents, taking the time to ask what they need for support and finding ways to incorporate children into their education.
“I have friends that are moms, some older, some my age,” she said. “High schools should learn about [teen parenting] because it would be great to have groups. We could talk and support each other.”