Discrimination, poverty and restrictive sex ed may be causing teen pregnancy rates to drop slower in certain areas, like the Mississippi Delta, according to a new report. 

On-the-ground researchers and trainers reiterate that the state’s abstinence-based sex ed curriculum is the biggest barrier to getting kids realistic knowledge about sexuality, but the sex ed policy is not up for renewal until 2021. Currently, districts can adopt either abstinence-only or abstinence-plus lessons, the latter of which can discuss — but notably not demonstrate how to use — contraceptives. But even in a district that adopts the more comprehensive abstinence-plus policy, the students can still get an abstinence-only education, which emphasizes that sex only happens upon marriage. That’s because the 11 approved curricula for the state can be confusingly labeled, says Josh McCawley, deputy director for Teen Health Mississippi, who works with districts to implement their sex ed curricula. His organization is funded by a federal grant, funneled through the state health department, to train and assist districts on all things sex ed.

“We provide as much as they need to support (teachers) because they’re the ones who are implementing it. We don’t go in and teach, it’s on them,” McCawley said. “We want to make sure they feel comfortable and confident in their knowledge and having these discussions.”

The goal is to help districts address barriers to getting kids sex ed. When the law mandated districts adopt a sex ed policy, it didn’t appropriate funds for districts to train teachers or buy materials. The program, Creating Healthy and Responsible Teens, is free for districts to participate. Some teachers come from a computer or English background, not health or science, so Teen Health Mississippi helps make sure they’re trained in sex ed. If logistical issues arise, like how to separate boys, girls and opt-out students into three classes — per the state’s policy — on an already strapped budget, McCawley can help facilitate that as well. But he can only do so much, and just tries to prepare teachers to be as inclusive as possible, he says.

“Our hands are tied in terms of content during sex ed, what can be taught is restricted to what’s in the curricula. None of them address LGBTQ-plus issues, however those issues do pop up as we hear directly from teachers,” he said. “During training, we talk about how to make classrooms as gender neutral as possible.”

McCawley has his eyes on 2021, when the current bill is up for renewal, and hopes the Legislature will prioritize giving the health department more authority over the curriculum and ensuring districts apply evidence-based policy. Mississippi Today reporter Aallyah Wright will be following on-the-ground interventions and support programs for teen moms in the Delta. 

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The round up is a section in our monthly women and girls newsletter, The Inform[H]er.


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Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.