The Denver Public School system is exploring offering contraceptives such as condoms to high school students. The Steamboat Springs School District currently has no plans to provide birth control to students, but the high school's sexual education class, which promotes abstinence, informs students about options available in town.

Photo by Brian Ray

The Denver Public School system is exploring offering contraceptives such as condoms to high school students. The Steamboat Springs School District currently has no plans to provide birth control to students, but the high school's sexual education class, which promotes abstinence, informs students about options available in town.

Abstinence first

Steamboat high school students get straight talk on sex

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— Alison Harris was 16 when she and her Steamboat Springs High School classmates were shown how to unroll a condom by their health class teacher.

"It was so awkward," said Harris, 18, a senior at the high school. She estimated about 80 percent of Steamboat seniors have had sex - an estimate that is substantially higher than results of a 2006 Grand Futures Prevention Coalition survey.

"They forced abstinence on you, and then they taught you how to be safe," Harris said of the school's sexual education curriculum. "I found it kind of confusing."

The Steamboat Springs School District, along with the Hayden and South Routt school districts, do not offer birth control options in schools. But many districts nationwide, including the Denver Public School system, are debating whether to allow students access to contraceptives.

Denver's school board is expected to consider recommendations by a 43-member task force Tuesday.

Several local parents raised the topic of school-provided contraceptives at an Oct. 18 Steamboat Springs School Board candidates' forum. Colorado law allows school officials to determine on a district-by-district basis how to address sexuality and contraceptives in schools.

"Here's an issue, like alcohol, that is bigger than the district," said District 4 candidate Char Rusk, a registered nurse at Yampa Valley Medical Center. "I don't think it's the school's place, but education needs to happen in the community."

District 4 candidate Robin Crossan, District 5 candidate Laura Anderson and District 2 candidate Lisa Brown also said they would not support contraceptives in the schools, but District 5 candidate Jerry Kozatch said he would consider such a program if the community demanded it.

"For me, it's a community question because the role of the School Board is to represent the community," he said. "So if this is something the community was telling us loud and clear that they wanted, then I would, if it was something I believed in."

Staying educated

"We know that abstinence is the only 100 percent way to stay pregnancy free and (sexually transmitted disease) free for males and females," said Lonn Clementson, one of three teachers who teach sexual education through the high school's health class.

"Our philosophy in the sexuality of education is we believe and advocate abstinence from chemicals, sexual activity and other health-compromising behaviors," he said. "We are not an abstinence-only curriculum, we are abstinence first."

The sexual education curriculum in Steamboat schools - by Colorado law - is an opt-in program, where parents can choose to have their child not take the class.

"We also have to provide an optional parent meeting that allows parents and legal guardians the legal opportunity to meet the instructor to make sure they are comfortable with them," Clementson said. "They have the option to view the curriculum, ask questions of the curriculum and voice their opinion about the curriculum before they choose to let their students in or not."

Steamboat students are abstaining from sex at a higher level than students nationwide.

A Centers for Disease Control survey conducted in 2005 found that 47 percent of high school students nationwide have had sex.

But according to the 2006 Grand Futures survey, about 34 percent of Steamboat high school students reported having sex. When looking just at Steamboat seniors, the survey stated that 57 percent of students had sex in the past year.

"We know that over the last decade, that sexual activity is starting to begin at a younger and younger age," said Clementson, who has a degree in biology and has taught sexual education in Steamboat for six years.

"A lot of things in this course that we are trying to dispel are some of the myths, misnomers and misunderstandings about sex and sexual activity, as well as relationships," he said. "Some students think everyone is having sex, but you are still in good company if you are abstinent."

Katie Groke Ellis, public affairs coordinator of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, stressed the importance of providing sexual education to students.

"Our hope is that young people have access to the information they need to make responsible decisions," she said. "At Planned Parenthood, we support comprehensive, medially accurate, age appropriate sexuality education."

Providing options

There is no basket of condoms in the high school nurse's office, nor do school officials promote some choices over others. But Clementson stressed that his goal is to provide students with as much information as possible, so students can make educated choices.

Speakers from the community - such as the Steamboat Springs Police Department, Steamboat Mental Health and Planned Parenthood - regularly visit sexual education classes.

"Sexuality a pretty difficult thing for kids to talk to parents about," Clementson said. "But as much as we can include parents in any part of the curriculum - from sexual activity to the consumption of alcohol - we are advocating school-wide that parents are involved with those decision either directly or indirectly with their influence."

One of the first stops students often make with concerns about pregnancy and STDs is the office of Dot Haberlan, a full-time nurse with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurses Association. Haberlan works full-time at the high school.

"Sometimes I talk with kids about options, and I don't recommend one over the other," she said. "But I always refer them or give them a list of sources they can go to in town."

Haberlan stressed that students have complete confidentiality when they speak with her, but if she senses the student is in danger, then parents and the proper authorities are notified.

The VNA is contracted to provide in-school medical care to the Steamboat, Hayden and South Routt school districts. Haberlan said all three Routt County districts address sexual education in a similar way.

"Some kids are wanting their parents involved in that, and some do not," she said. "I always tell them to discuss it with their parents, because, as parents, we know a thing or two. But some kids are not comfortable in doing that, and that is their right."

Haberlan wouldn't say whether she favored offering condoms or other contraceptives to students, but Steamboat parent Roxane Miller-Freutel said she hopes the district moves in that direction.

"If they are passing out condoms and helping teens from getting pregnant, then I'm all for it," Miller-Freutel said. "I don't think abstinence is a reality anymore. Having said that, I'm no so much into providing birth control pills. Students can go to Planned Parenthood for that."

Harris said that she also thinks providing birth control pills is too extreme, but she supports having a discrete source for students to obtain condoms.

"I think it would be a good idea because teenagers are going to have sex," she said. "Better to be safe than to be sorry."

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