The Manatee Tiger Bay Club last week hosted a discussion about the county’s sex education policies and what members see as the failure of abstinence-only polices in their schools.

As previously reported, Manatee County addressed a significant rise in teen pregnancy in the county last year by opening up its sex education policy to include a curriculum that moved beyond “abstinence-only” information. At the time, county officials blamed the limited curriculum, among other factors, for the sharp rise in teen pregnancy rates.

Abstinence-only sex education curriculum typically does not teach students about contraception and STD prevention, whereas more comprehensive sex education programs do.

The Manatee Tiger Bay Club is a “non-partisan organization formed to present exciting, stimulating and thought provoking programs,” according to the group’s website. The site also says the topics covered by the group “range from, but are not limited to, political, social, local, state or national issues.”

The group’s topic last week was the role sex education plays in the county’s teen pregnancy rates.

According to the Bradenton Herald, guest panelists in the discussion “included Daniel Manassa, Care Net community education director; Lynette Edwards, Manatee County’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction; and Barbara Zdravecky, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest Central Florida.” The basis of discussion was the county’s recent reduction in “in the number of middle schoolers getting pregnant.” The Herald reports that “last year there were 30 [and] this year there are nine” girls who got pregnant while in middle school.

Edwards credits the county “offering students ‘abstinence-based, not abstinence only’ education” for the improvement.

The Herald reports:

“Didn’t we learn decades ago that ‘Just say no’ — Nancy Reagan’s mantra — doesn’t work?” one member said.

Zdravecky said years ago the school district had one of the most progressive sex education programs, which included Planned Parenthood. However, many parents asked for the organization to be removed. Today, Planned Parenthood exists in Sarasota County, but not Manatee.

“Manatee County has been one of the worst for teen pregnancy and particularly for repeat teen pregnancy,” Zdravecky said.

Care Net, Manassa said, has stressed abstinence in the community for 13 years.

“Abstinence is the surest way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease,” he said. “It’s important to be … voluntarily choosing not to engage in sex.”

One member told Manassa that he respects his beliefs, but he didn’t believe it would work for students today.

Zdravecky added, “With all due respect to Daniel, ‘Just say no’ is not a negotiation skill. Fear has kept our kids in the dark. We haven’t been truthful to our kids. Kids are still having sex.”

As previously reported, Planned Parenthood remains shunned from Manatee County schools, despite the county’s change in policy.

Nan Gould, a sex education specialist with Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central, has said that representatives from her organization are still not invited to speak at the schools, while Care Net remains in the system. In the past, Gould has said that Planned Parenthood, unlike the Manatee Care Net affiliate, does not rely on volunteers. She says Planned Parenthood only hires people with bachelor’s degrees and sex education training to teach at schools. “We are the ones that know this information,” she said.

Manassa, who works in the Care Net affiliate’s Teenage Pregnancy Prevention Program, has said that the program’s volunteers only speak by request of the individual school. As part of the Christian group’s belief in abstinence before marriage, the group says it does not teach students about contraception.

Florida policy-makers have continued to place a statewide focus on abstinence-only education over comprehensive sex education. This year the Legislature rejected millions in federal grants that would have gone to struggling communities to help them educate students on contraception and STD prevention. The Legislature, however, has continued to accept federal grants for abstinence-only programs, which have been shown to place little emphasis on health-related information.

According to the most recent data on teen pregnancy in the state, over 60 percent of the counties in Florida with the highest birth rate among teens who are between the ages of 15 and 19 did not manage to decrease their rates in 2009. That same year Florida was also sixth in the nation for teen birth rates.

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