11/14/04 — Wayne leaders urged to help fight teen pregnancy

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Wayne leaders urged to help fight teen pregnancy

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 14, 2004 2:08 AM

Statistics flew fast and furious about teen sex, causing a range of reactions for the audience of Wayne County officials.

Dena Whitley, a counselor with Wayne County public schools, said that from 2000 to 2002, 694 babies were born to girls between 10 and 19 years old.

One in three teens has experienced violence in a dating relationship, said Kristal Jones, a health educator with WATCH.

Wayne County's rate of sexually transmitted diseases was 17 percent higher than the state rate in 2003, said Ravonda Freeman, health educator with the Health Department. Over 15 million new cases occur in the United States each year, about 3 million of those are teens, she reported.

And the number of youths using drugs and alcohol continues to climb, said Kristin Tri, a health educator representing the county Health Department.

By the time Nakisha Floyd spoke, she said, she had witnessed an array of facial expressions in the audience.

"Some range from shock to almost disbelief," said Ms. Floyd, coordinator of the health education program for WATCH.

That was the desired effect, said WATCH Executive Director Sissy Lee-Elmore. "We wanted you to know what was going on in the schools."

"What's going on? -- Feedback from the field" was the theme of Friday's program. Ms. Lee-Elmore hoped it would be a call to action.

The program was presented at a legislature breakfast held by WATCH's Teen Pregnancy Task Force at Wayne Memorial Hospital. School counselors, Health Director James Roosen, state Sen. John Kerr, and county school board member Lehman Smith were among the three dozen who attended.

Ms. Walker said children are growing up faster than before, physically but not necessarily emotionally.

She spoke of teen promiscuity, where youths engage in sexual encounters to gain acceptance or get attention.

"Sex bracelets are a big thing that's going on with both middle and high school," she said. The popular gel bracelets come in a variety of colors, each of which represents a different sex act the person is willing to do. She said the majority of youths are aware of them and what they stand for.

"Typically, girls wear the bracelet and a guy comes up from behind and 'snaps' it or breaks the bracelet off her arm that indicates the sex act they want to engage in," she said.

Other problems also stem from being involved in relationships too early. Young girls becoming involved with an older man not only run the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, but of statutory rape, which is a felony in North Carolina, Ms. Freeman said.

"The older person can be charged with statutory rape if he or she is more than four years older than the victim," she said.

Gang violence, frequently overlooked in smaller towns, is also a way for teens to seek acceptance, protection and excitement, Ms. Jones said.

"They join because they're like family," she said. "It meets some need which many are missing at home."

She said there is no easy way to solve the problems of violence. The combined efforts of community leaders and parents are necessary, she said.

Ms. Floyd also addressed the problem of same-sex relationships among high school students, which she said are more prevalent than the public realizes.

She said students questioning their sexuality are often targets of verbal, physical and sexual harassment. She said that faculty, staff or students rarely intervene when homophobic remarks are made.

As a result, suicides among homosexuals or others considered out of the norm are higher, she said.

"Every five hours, a gay or bisexual youth that cannot deal with the pressure commits suicide," she said.

Ms. Walker said that as health educators, she and her counterparts are privy to more information than the average person.

"It's one thing for someone to come to you and say, 'This is what's going on,'" she said. "It's completely different to work with it on a daily basis, to understand how serious sex has become."

She said today's youth are a different generation.

"It's so easy for our students to engage in these things and not think about the repercussions that can happen in the future," she said.

"It's a battle; it's a struggle. The war is not just in Iraq; the war is here."

Ms. Floyd said that in the past, ignoring problems might have been acceptable but "this is the day of HIV."

"Hiding our heads in the sand is not going to do anything except protect our pride or our embarrassment," she concluded.