New Mexico’s sexual education problem
Though the Albuquerque teacher who surveyed his high school students on sexual experiences violated district policy on requesting sensitive information, he sought to address an issue that affects more New Mexican youth than those in most other states.
New Mexico, together with states like Arkansas, Texas, and Mississippi, lead the country in teen pregnancy. According to 2008 figures published by the federal Centers for Disease Control, The Land of Enchantment trails only Mississippi in teenage births.
Also according to the CDC, 15 percent of New Mexico high school students had four or more sexual partners, based on a nationwide 2009 survey. Only 57 percent of high school students in the state used a condom during their most recent episode of sexual intercourse. Meanwhile, roughly 15 percent of high school-aged females were on birth control, while the national median is nearly 24 percent.
New Mexico students are also behind their national peers in sexual education. The same 2009 CDC survey indicates 77 percent of high school youth were taught about HIV/AIDS in school, compared to the U.S. median of nearly 86 percent.
A chart by the reproductive health research group The Guttmacher Institute demonstrates while sexual and HIV education is mandated in New Mexico, there are no requirements on the lessons being medically accurate or age appropriate.
Teen pregnancy is also costly: with minimal private healthcare options for young girls, the state ends up paying some $590 million on youths giving birth, according to New Mexico Department of Health figures.
“Comprehensive sexual education is one of the strategies that work to reduce teen pregnancies and STIs,” says Sylvia Ruiz, executive director of New Mexico Teen Pregnancy Coalition.
But she also says school-based sexual education is the most controversial.
“We have local school board control in New Mexico, and school boards decide what curricula will be decided on STI,” she told TAI.
Still, other programs outside of the classroom exist to target students and parents on improved sexual education.
The state partnered with Ruiz’ group through a series of community outreach programs to provide a fact-based curriculum for parents and students in Albuquerque. Internal surveys show that 52 percent of teenagers feel their parents would not support their use of birth control while less than 40 percent say they’ve spoken to parents about contraception.
Parents, according to the survey, are hesitant to approach their children, too, with 48 percent relieved or happy when approached by their children on sexual matters.
The state also takes part in Cuidate, a CDC-sponsored HIV/AIDS outreach initiative targeting Hispanic communities.
“Naturally we want parents to transfer sexual health values to their children,” says Ruiz. “But if your family is poor, struggling with rent and bills, it’s really hard… to retransfer values of reproductive health to kids.”
But the state could use more family-based education, especially in the greater Albuquerque area. Though the major metropolitan region, and Bernalillo County in general, has a lower rate of poverty than the rest of the state, the region beats many counties in the number of STI cases annually. Only four counties have a higher incident rate of Chlamydia, and Bernalillo has the third highest number of Gonorrhea cases, with 687 and 94 incidents per 100,000 people, respectively, reported in 2010.