Originally created 06/16/04

Classes aim at young teens



Abstinence educators are targeting a younger audience these days.

Sex talk used to be reserved for children no younger than eighth grade. But educators are finding out that today's youths are having sex at much younger ages.

In Richmond County, about 250 sixth-graders at Morgan Road Middle School will begin a three-year program this fall that discusses abstinence and the long-term consequences of sex and pregnancy. The program is funded by a $33,000 federal grant based on statistics that show high rates of pregnancies in that school's neighborhoods.

"You need to start working with them earlier. A lot of ideas are formed at earlier ages," said Vikki Pruitt, of the Augusta-Richmond County Community Partnership for Children and Family Inc., which is operating the program.

Statistics for Richmond County show 274 girls ages 10-17 became pregnant in Richmond County in 2002, the last year data was available. Two dozen of those were younger than 15, according to the Georgia Division of Public Health. The county ranks 31st in the state for highest teen pregnancy rate, state reports show.

But Morgan Road won't be the first Richmond County school to have classes advising teens to wait on sex. Eighth- and ninth-graders in all schools, except Butler and Davidson, are taught abstinence by trained instructors from the Communities in Schools of Augusta-Richmond County Inc.

Two years ago, the organization began abstinence education for 3,000 eighth-graders during either health, science or physical education classes. They continued teaching eighth-graders last year and followed the first group to ninth grade with more advanced instruction. Tenth grade will be added this year, affecting a total of about 7,000 children in all three grades.

In addition, they teach sixth- and seventh-graders at Tubman Middle School because the principal became concerned about younger pupils having sex, said Mary Crawford, the group's executive director.

President Bush has placed a priority on abstinence education, budgeting $135 million this year for federal grants. In his State of the Union address in January, the president proposed doubling federal funding for abstinence education programs to $270 million in 2005.

Federal abstinence money in the United States goes mainly to organizations such as Communities in Schools, which tries to point out the consequences of sex.

Abstinence educators say the program isn't a "say no to sex" campaign. Instead, it teaches youths how to form healthy relationships.

"You are talking about making positive decisions. ... It's about feeling positive about yourself, maintaining your health and about how big problems could arise from pregnancy at too early of an age," Ms. Pruitt said.

The grant for Morgan Road allows instructors to follow the first group to their seventh- and eighth-grade years. Participants will be asked to develop and implement an abstinence social-marketing campaign twice a year using drama, poetry or skits.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 823-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.