The School District of Rhinelander Board of Education approved a new health course Monday designed to teach young high school students to be "street smart" as they navigate their adolescent years.
The new health class will be offered primarily to freshmen starting with the 2017-18 school year. According to the community health specialists who will be teaching the course, the curriculum is designed to help students navigate peer pressure, self-worth and sexuality.
The course has been offered as an after-school program but the instructors, Maria Otterholt and Meagan Otto, community health specialists at the Oneida County Health Department, want to offer it has a regular health class.
The women started their presentation by asking the school board members to write down what they believe to be the biggest challenges that young RHS students are facing today. The replies included drug and alcohol use, sex, peer pressure, mental health, anxiety and depression.
"You guys are right on, all of these things are things that our teens our facing on a day-to-day basis and are struggling with and missing some information on these things," Otterholt said. "So that is why we are excited to bring the Street Smarts programming to Rhinelander High School."
Otto said the Street Smarts program is designed to "help youth practice safe sex, get in touch with their feelings, get rid of thoughts that are self-defeating, feel confident about their ability to act safe, know where to go when they are in trouble and equip them with the confidence to navigate through these difficult adolescent years."
The two passed out a fact sheet with some staggering statistics about Oneida County teens. According to the handout, the percentage of RHS teens having sex doubles between their freshman and sophomore year, rising from 15 percent to 26 percent. The teen birth rate for Oneida County is at 35 per 1000, above the state average of 31. Twenty-one percent of RHS freshmen considered attempting suicide in the last year and approximately 10 percent of Oneida County youth were arrested in 2014.
Otto said the statistic showing an uptick in sexual activity between freshmen year and sophomore year is one of the reasons they want to focus the class at the freshman level.
"That doubling statistic is a big thing," Otto said. "This is the time that they really need that education. You can see that many of them are making the decision to be sexually active, so we want to make sure that they are safe. If a child decides to do that, that they are comfortable talking with their partner in making this decision."
She added that the percentage of RHS freshmen thinking about suicide may not seem like a high number, but she noted "this number should be zero."
"There is no reason that we should have even 1 percent of the students considering or attempting suicide," Otto said. "This program really just teaches them how to go about their lives more confidently. We teach them skills where they can cope through these problems and show them that they are not alone in what they are facing. Many of their peers are, too, it's just not talked about."
She said the program is designed to help teenagers recognize triggers in their lives that might lead them down a path to unsafe sex or illegal behavior. Once they are given coping strategies to deal with these triggers, they will better be able to control their behavior, Otto and Otterholt told the board.
"We are going to teach them other ways to get through their feelings and get through their day," Otto said.
The two gave the board members a detailed look at the breakdowns of lessons in each section of the curriculum.
Otterholt said that the goal of the program is to help teenagers reduce harmful behaviors.
"So when it comes to the peer pressure and the sex and the drugs and alcohol, it's making smart, safe decisions," she explained.
Otto said RHS is the only school in the county offering the Street Smarts program at present.
Some of the benefits to the Street Smarts program, in comparison to traditional health class, are that it offers education and skills not taught in regular health classes, the instructors said. Also, because the class sizes are smaller, it is more personalized and students have an opportunity to practice the skills they are taught.
Board members asked the instructors if the course promotes teen sex. Otto and Otterholt said teaching students about safe sex does not equal action, and the knowledge and skills the students gain actually empowers them to better resist pressure to engage in sex before they are emotionally ready.
"Yes, we are going into all the details about sex, drugs and alcohol. But the thing that we really push here is that education does not equal action," Otterholt said. "They might have a food class here that is teaching them how to make a glorious three-course meal but that doesn't mean that they are going home and make mom and dad a three-course meal every night. But if they decide to make that three-course meal, they are going to think back to that food class and all the tips they were taught in there and they are going to make a meal that tastes great, something that they are proud of. So if they go home and decide (to have sex), hopefully they will remember everything we taught them in class and all the tips and techniques they need to be safe and make a smart decision and communicate with their partner so that they have open communication on what their needs are, their beliefs and their values."
She noted that parents will have the ability to have their children opt out of the class if they are uncomfortable with the material, but she stressed that students are often hearing or reading inaccurate information and this is an opportunity for them to learn the facts.
"We all have to understand that they are already hearing it, whether it's from their friends or just passing in the hallway or maybe they are Googling things at night," Otterholt said. "They are already hearing this information, why not give it to them from another reliable source that have been trained and have degrees in this information so that they have the correct information as they move forward?"
District superintendent Kelli Jacobi clarified that the parental opt out provision is in place for all district health classes at all grade levels.
While parents can exercise the option to keep their student out of the Street Smarts class, Jacobi clarified that they can't cherry-pick what components their children hear or don't hear. In other words, parents can't ask for their child to hear the information about preventing suicide but not the safe sex information.
"When students are learning about their bodies, there is always an opt out option for parents," Jacobi said.
Otterholt and Otto also said they plan to hold parent information sessions before school starts to give the adults more information about the program and answer their questions.
"We are both also mandated reporters, so we let them know that at the beginning," Otterholt said. "Again, we're not counselors, so if they go too deep, we stop them and say let me refer you to the actual professional that they need. So if they do ever cross that line to something we would have to report, you can have comfort in that is our job as a health department employ to do."
Jacobi said that the class is being funded by grants and is a community partnership with the health department "that we are thrilled to have."
Jamie Taylor may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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