Point of view: Peninsula teens need comprehensive sexual health education
On a recent February morning, ninth graders tumbled into a health class at Homer High School to talk about anatomy, reproduction, puberty, consent, healthy relationships, behaviors, contraception and abstinence with staff from Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic’s youth-focused REC (Resource and Enrichment Co-op) team.
The district-approved sexual health education curriculum was presented by the team of trained adults and teen peer educators to more than 80 first-year HHS students this winter. It covers critical topics with evidence-based information that ensures all students have equal access to medically accurate facts: Information that helps bust the myths teens encounter on social media and in conversations with their friends.
KBFPC-led sexual health education has happened at high schools and middle schools on the southern Kenai Peninsula for decades and reflects a partnership between staff at Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic, individual school administrators, classroom teachers and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
In fact, the district was the first in the state to approve a comprehensive sexual health curriculum, the one developed by KBFPC’s REC team, following the passing of the 2016 Alaska House Bill 156, School Accountability Measures.
KBFPC also partners with each teen’s parents or guardians, who are included in the learning through conversation starters embedded in the assigned homework that encourage adults and students to talk about their families’ beliefs and values around the topics. Parents and guardians may also opt out from their teen’s participation if they choose.
As one of the HHS parents said: “One of the biggest fears parents had at a recent community meeting was what kind of sexual content their kids were being exposed to online. Kids are getting a sexual health education whether we like it or not. They need evidence-based sexual health education like KBFPC and the REC team’s, delivered to them in a safe, learning environment.”
The REC team will continue to teach in area schools around Kachemak Bay and farther up the peninsula in the coming weeks.
The multiday learning is guided by research and national standards including the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), taken by high school students across the state this spring and every two years. Since 2016, when the current REC curriculum was first approved, the YRBS has reported a decline in teen pregnancies.
KBFPC’s comprehensive sexual health education curriculum content helps the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District meet the State of Alaska requirements in the Alaska Safe Children’s Act: Erin’s Law (Statute 14.30.355), which aims to reduce and prevent sexual abuse and sexual assault through training for students, and Bree’s Law (Statute 14.30.356), which addresses dating violence prevention and healthy relationships training.
“The healthy relationship part was amazing and actually kind of empowering to realize the rights I have in any relationship,” a Homer High School student said in a post-survey.
Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault in the nation. Sexually transmitted infection rates across Alaska continue to climb, among both adults and teens.
Misinformation and lack of quality information about sexual health puts teens and our communities at risk. We all want healthy teens, and to foster their growth into thriving adults. Understanding sexual and reproductive health helps them make informed and intentional decisions about their bodies, behaviors, and relationships.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says, “Youth need developmentally appropriate information about their sexuality and how it relates to their bodies, community, culture, society, mental health, and relationships with family, peers, and romantic partners.”
Sexual health education like KBFPC’s is critical to addressing serious public health issues affecting teens and adults in Alaska and can help prevent sexual assault (Journal of Adolescent Health, 2020), sexually transmitted infections or STIs (American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2012), and unintended pregnancies (National Academy of Sciences, 2022).
Having access to factual, comprehensive information, an array of local and reliable online resources, and the opportunity to ask experienced professionals and trained peers their important, possibly life-altering questions helps teens best understand the decisions they may face, how to find the help they need, and supports their overall health.
Health literacy, including sexual and reproductive health, is essential to strong, vibrant communities.
Claudia Haines is the CEO of Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic, a long-time resident of Homer, and the parent of two teens.