Gila County offers effective, age-adjusted health and sex education classes for students — but few Rim Country school campuses take advantage of the program.

The Gila County School Health Liaison Program, funded by the Arizona Department of Health Services, offers one-hour-a week classes in things like bullying and sex education. The five-year-old program’s motto is “Start early — talk often.”

Every school in southern Gila County takes part in the program, but of the nine schools in northern Gila County, only Payson High School and Payson Elementary participate.

Each school principal makes the call.

However, studies show that not only does Gila County have the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state, but 1 in 5 students report they have problems with bullies at school.

Certified health educators from the Gila County Health and Emergency Management Department of Gila County teach the classes, which help students practice the skills necessary for making health-promoting decisions, achieving health literacy and adopting health-enhancing behaviors.

The classes shift with the grade level. For example, elementary school begins with personal hygiene and bullying prevention. Intermediate school topics may include Smart Girls: Female Life Skills and Smart Boys: Male Life Skills or Tobacco Use Prevention. In high school, classes cover reproductive health, sexually transmitted diseases and substance abuse prevention. These classes require parental permission.

Bullying prevention programs talk about self-respect and the worth of individuals. Arizona school districts aren’t required to offer programs on bullying, but the 2016 National Center for Educational Statistics reports that more than 20 percent of students report being bullied. Although most Rim Country schools don’t take advantage of the classes, School Health Liaison Jessica Palmer, helped the children at Payson Community Kids produce an enlightening video about anti-bullying.

Older students can take a class in reproductive health. Program Manager Nancy Rutherford says, “The students need and want to know about their body.”

Although the rates are slowly decreasing, Gila County continues to have the highest teen pregnancy rates in Arizona — 49 teen pregnancies per 1,000 pregnancies compared to 30 statewide. Risk factors include drugs and alcohol, lack of knowledge about sex and contraceptives, lack of goals for future, low self-esteem, poor school performance, sex at a young age and being the victim of sexual abuse.

Comprehensive sexuality education in a healthy, controlled environment can make a difference, studies show. In the intermediate level program, students learn how to say “no” to sex in a manner that doesn’t jeopardize a good relationship. They also learn “delay tactics” and alternative actions, to avoid a risky situation or buy time to make a good decision.

Studies show that giving students’ information about contraceptives does not increase the odds they’ll have sex or lower the age of the first sexual experience, but can reduce teen pregnancies. Students learn they must consult with their parents and think through their own values to decide what to do.

One freshman said to Palmer, “I almost made a bad decision with a senior, but you helped me. Thanks to you, I now know my worth.”

Parents and students can request, from their principal, the classes in the “menu.”

It might make a difference to one of our young people in Gila County.

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