Photo By DENNIS MYERS Assemblymember David Bobzien has sponsored legislation to bring Nevada’s sex education classes up to date.

“Is it a coincidence that Nevada not only has the worst dropout rate in the country, but also the second-highest teen pregnancy rate?” asks an essay on the Nevada Advocates for Planned Parenthood Affiliates website.

Signed only “M.R.” and headlined “Legislature 2011: Sex Education in Rural Nevada,” the essay’s author is identified as a “student at the University of Nevada, Reno [who is] involved with the Public Relations Student Society of America.”

The author’s question is moot, because Nevada does not have the second highest teen pregnancy rate, though Assemblymember David Bobzien also recently said it did.

Nor does it have the highest teen pregnancy rate, as recently reported by both the Nevada Women’s Lobby and the Reno office of Planned Parenthood.

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics, in 2008—the most recent year for which there are complete figures—Nevada was down to 10th highest in the nation.

In addition, a few weeks ago, the CDC reported that Nevada has had a 20 percent decrease in teen pregnancies since 2007.

Granted, the state’s ranking is still nothing to brag about, but it appears that sometimes throwing money at a problem does work.

In 1995, the Nevada Legislature provided some funding for a state anti-teen pregnancy education program. That year, Nevada had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation. The new program was housed initially in the Nevada State Health Division. There was also a teen pregnancy task force in Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa’s office. The Health Division program now seems to have been moved to the state Division of Welfare and Supportive Services, and its future is uncertain.

In 1996, a four-year plan for dealing with teen pregnancy was adopted. It relied heavily on education of teens. Forty “community action teams” were formed to travel the state as advocates. Money ran short fast, and the teams were later dropped. A charitable foundation formed for the purpose raised money, and some funding came from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. The next year, Nevada dropped to fourth in the nation.

Del Papa brought another factor into the equation with a letter to the state’s district attorneys asking them to become more vigilant in pursuing cases of acquaintance rape, particularly in cases where one partner was substantially older than the other. She did not say it was the principal factor in Nevada’s high teen pregnancy rate, but it was a factor.

In Nevada, young women can legally consent to sex at age 16, but figures showed the younger a pregnant teenager was, the older the male partner was, suggesting unbalanced relationships that were distinct from high school courtships. “When you look at the charts, 72 percent of the men involved in teenage pregnancy are over 20,” Del Papa said in February 1996.

The trend sometimes fluctuated, but Nevada continued to move lower on the list of state teen pregnancy rates.

But some officials believe the state has gone about as far as it can go with the limited resources it has and with the approach it takes. There is also a danger that with all the cuts in funding, teen pregnancies will begin rising again. Specifically, there is criticism of the way sex education classes are taught and of how little use is made of them to prevent pregnancy.

Nevada didn’t even have sex education in its schools until 1987—and even then it was disguised as an AIDS-prevention program. It was the height of the AIDS hysteria, and at the time it was observed that the only thing it took to get sex education into Nevada schools was a worldwide plague. The title on the statute, Nevada Revised Statute 389.065, reads, “Instruction on acquired immune deficiency syndrome, human reproductive system, related communicable diseases and sexual responsibility.”

Washoe County’s Assemblymember Bobzien and Sen. Sheila Leslie are pushing Assembly Bill 314 to open up the curriculum beyond abstinence-only and birth control instruction that has severe legal limits placed on it. Moreover, the nature of instruction fluctuates wildly from county to county, so they want state standards.

“Washoe County has one of the best sex ed programs in the country,” said Leslie. “It’s very, you know, up to date. It’s medically accurate. But what I’ve heard consistently over the years is that is not the case everywhere in the state, and it seems like a good time to review that and see if we can’t strengthen those criteria and make sure that our kids are being taught accurate information. … This isn’t an effort to greatly expand or introduce new topics so much as to make sure that what is being taught is accurate and incorporates medical information as it’s developed.”

“I wanted to start the conversation,” said Bobzien, who sponsored the bill. “I think it’s an important issue. We have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation and frankly, there is an economic impact to the state. Teens who get pregnant represent lost income, lost future employees. There’s actually a pretty dramatic economic hit to the state.”

The bill went from the Assembly Education Committee to the Ways and Means Committee, which is the house’s budget committee, for a fiscal assessment. Bobzien said whatever skepticism of the bill exists has as much to do with cost as with the subject.

“I don’t think there was enough comfort yet with the bill when it was in the Education Committee,” Bobzien said. “There was a lot of discussion about possible amendments, things that could be improved on the bill. And so, with that in mind, and also knowing that there’s a fiscal component to it, it went to Ways and Means.”

“A couple of us weren’t wild about it,” said Assemblymember Richard McArthur, a Clark County Republican. But he said it’s uncertain whether their misgivings will translate into outright opposition.

The bill calls for “comprehensive” sex education and directs a state panel to create standards. Assemblymember Randy Kirner, a Washoe Republican, said he was directed by supporters to standards of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) for sample standards and was taken aback. “I’m kind of on the fence and here’s the issue for me—the definition of what comprehensive is.”

The SIECUS website says, variously, that comprehensive would include things like human development, relationships, sexual orientation, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, abstinence, contraception and disease prevention.

Kirner said he was not flatly opposed to the bill but wants to see what changes are possible before committing himself.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...