The United States leads most developed nations in teen births, but Gila County’s teen birth rate is four times higher than the national average.
Gila County has 83 teen births per every 1,000 girls aged 15 — 19 compared to a national average of 21 and a state average of 55.
Payson contributes 30 percent of the teen births to the county total. Payson is tied with San Carlos as the community with the highest birth rate in Gila County.
The Payson Regional Medical Center reported 37 teen births in 2010, which includes 19-year-olds and covers the area from Happy Jack to Heber to the Tonto Basin.
“If Payson High School had that many pregnancies each year it would be in the national news,” said Lisa Jackson, a 2003 graduate of PHS. “Instead, the high school averages three to four teen pregnancies per year.”
The school board heard a report from Jackson at its meeting on Monday, April 29. Jackson, who still has family in town, asked the district if it would help her complete her final project for her master’s degree from Dartmouth University in Public Health.
She said she wanted to focus on Payson because each year PHS students get pregnant. Often, these girls drop out of school.
“When you have a child, your decisions become limited,” said Jackson after the meeting. She hopes to inspire a sex education program in Payson.
She combined her research with a health survey the state was conducting based on a federal Centers for Disease Control study.
While the state randomly surveyed three of Payson’s classrooms, Jackson received permission from 516 students’ parents for them to participate in a 99-question survey on depression, drug abuse, sex, bullying and other health topics.
This week, Jackson reported the results from the 11 questions regarding sex.
“Studies show that a sex education program helps to reduce teen pregnancies,” she said to the board.
She told the story of visiting the Mascoma High School in Canaan, N.H. with similar student and family demographics to Payson. So similar are the schools, the colors are even purple and yellow.
However, they differed significantly in the teen pregnancy rate.
According to an estimate by the nurse at the New Hampshire school, Mascoma H.S. had only one teen pregnancy in the last 10 years, compared to the Payson High’s two to six pregnancies each year.
The reason for the difference? The Canaan school has a sex education program, said Jackson. She also reported the community has a Planned Parenthood presence and tertiary medical care.
The difference struck Jackson, who said four girls in her class got pregnant and had children.
“I think the biggest thing for me is that it mostly falls on teen girls,” she said. “It’s the loss of potential for these teens. I wonder what could have been.”
Jackson reported Centers for Disease Control estimates that teen pregnancies cost the U.S. taxpayer $11 billion per year for increased health care and foster care.
Teen pregnancy can also contribute to high school drop-out rates.
Only 50 percent of teen mothers obtain a high school diploma by the age of 22. Teen mothers are also more likely to live in poverty. Teen mothers and their children have more health problems, become incarcerated, have high unemployment and lower achievement.
Jackson then gave a report on the sexual activity of Payson High School students, based on the answers students gave on the survey.
She said 42 percent of teens admitted to having sex. Of those, a third said they were 15 when they had sex.
A quarter said their parents had never talked to them about sex.
When asked where they received information on sex, 42 percent said their parents, 19 percent turned to friends and 15 percent learned about sex from the media.
“That concerns me, I have no idea what the media would have to say about sex education,” said Jackson.
To bolster her argument for a sex education class in Payson, Jackson quoted the results of a 2008 study by Kohler, Manhart and Lafferty, “Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education and the Initiation of Sexual Activity,” published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
“... abstinence-only programs had no significant effect in delaying the initiation of sexual activity or in reducing the risk of teen pregnancy and STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). “… comprehensive sex education programs were significantly associated with reduced risk of teen pregnancy, whether compared with no sex education or with abstinence-only sex education ...”
Jackson said 22 states have mandatory sex education, but Arizona does not require sex education in schools. Because there is no oversight, the information given in whatever sex ed classes taught may not be accurate medical information and could possibly have religious overtones, said Jackson.
“Shocking!” she said of the state policies.
Jackson did praise the Payson district for initiating a sex education program this year, but she bemoaned the fact that it was grant funded and limited in scope.
“When I was in school and asked about sex education the idea was pooh-poohed,” she said. “This year it was taught to freshman and sophomore boys and girls in P.E., but it has no long-term goals and has limited data collected on the results.”