Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones
Jaeda Bennett, a health educator at Teen Matters, fills a free condom dispenser.
The front room of the Eastside Teen Matters Clinic exudes a hangout vibe. There’s a dark leather couch against a lavender accent wall facing a flat-screen TV. Inspirational quotes and framed pictures dot the walls, and there are magazines stacked on the coffee table.
The bowl on the tables holds not fake flowers or fruit, however, but packages of condoms and small cards the size of playing cards, describing the different types of contraceptives. And the program on TV isn’t a quiz or cooking show; it’s a video answering common questions about birth control and contraceptives.
Making the waiting room “teen-centric” helps teenagers feel comfortable when they walk over to the clinic from Cedar Shoals High School, which is across the street, when they want information about sex. “This is a teen-friendly atmosphere,” says Jaeda Bennett, the health educator for both Teen Matters locations. (The other is in the Rocksprings Homes public housing complex near Clarke Central High School.) “There is no judging. There is acceptance and understanding. We praise them for making the responsible decision to be educated.”
Teen Matters’ mission is preventing pregnancy among teenage girls. Staff counselors set up booths at school events and get to know the kids in middle school and high school. They become familiar faces, like big sisters you might ask for advice if your boyfriend was pressuring you to have sex.
Georgia law makes abstinence the cornerstone of sex education, emphasizing that avoiding sexual acts is the best way to prevent both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Local school districts, however, can include additional information if they wish, according to Adriane Strong, director of health education for the Northeast Georgia Public Health District, which includes Clarke and nine other counties.
Teen Matters was founded by District Health Director Claude Burnett in the mid-1990s, when statistics showed a large number of girls becoming pregnant and dropping out of school. Newly hired counselors began visiting the schools and inviting teens—both boys and girls—to visit off-campus sites for education and advice.
While some counties go only as far as the “A-B-C” approach (Abstinence, Be faithful to one partner if sexually active, use Condoms), Clarke County has adopted a “comprehensive sex education” approach. In addition to providing medically accurate information about bodily changes and different birth control methods, this curriculum emphasizes tools for building healthy relationships, making sound decisions not clouded by drugs or alcohol and avoiding verbal and physical sexual abuse.
Research shows that comprehensive sex education can reduce the incidence of teen pregnancies over time. When the Alan Guttmacher Institute compared data from the mid-1990s to new information collected in 2010, teen pregnancies had dropped nationwide by 44 percent.
The decline in Georgia has been less dramatic lately. The most recent state-level data show that the number of Clarke County teenagers who became pregnant had dropped from 161 in 2011 to 145 in 2013. That’s better, but it’s not zero. Teen Matters clinics can’t raise the self-esteem of every girl who’s struggling with school and sees having a baby with her boyfriend as a viable path to the future.
The idea of talking to teens about sex is taboo for many adults, says Jennifer George, a senior lecturer in family and consumer science at the University of Georgia. “Kids want information,” she says. “Kids want to talk about sex. They want to talk about making sexual health decisions. [Having more information] will most likely delay them having sex.”
Local parents aren’t always well equipped to have these talks, according to Bennett. Many parents left high school without a diploma and probably aren’t well informed about modern contraceptive methods, such as implants that prevent pregnancy for three years and cost only $20 at the health department. Parents who are focused on living a religious life may close their eyes to what is happening with their teenage children. “No parent wants to know or think their child is sexually active,” says Bennett.
Although school districts may differ, George believes there is a moral and societal obligation to teach adolescents and teenagers about sex and relationships. “We’re not doing any favors by not talking about it,” she says. “Sexual health education has to be developmentally appropriate.”
Middle-school children need to learn about recognizing feelings for other people, including special feelings for someone beyond friendships. Helping kids process and discuss such feelings begins an essential conversation about what makes a healthy relationship.
“The bulk of sex education is about the act itself, which is quick,” George says. She feels this is a mistake. What really matters is engaging young people in conversations about intimacy, love and where sexual activity fits into life as a whole. “It freaks people out,” George says about comprehensive sex education. “But when we give them the tools, they are better informed and will make better decisions.”