When county eighth-graders take health next school year, they will hear the same message on sexual behavior that classes before them have been taught - abstinence - despite a proposal to introduce a unit on "family life and human sexuality."
The unit comes out of Maryland's voluntary state curriculum objectives for health education, which include describing methods of contraception, their effectiveness and how they are used to prevent pregnancy and reduce the chances of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and AIDS.
Last spring, the Carroll County school board nixed the health education proposal and requested more county-specific information. A newer report with that information and the same recommendation from the district's family life and human development committee was submitted to school board members last month. But they have decided not to act on the issue, said board President Gary W. Bauer, who voted for the curriculum change last year.
"I think the children need the information," Bauer said - a sentiment that health teachers and local health officials share.
But fellow board members said the subjects were too much, too soon for eighth-graders and that the county-specific data failed to reflect a need.
"We didn't get any more definitive data that would make me change my mind," said Patricia Gadberry, who, along with members Cynthia Foley and Thomas Hiltz, voted against the change. "My feeling is eighth grade is just a little too young."
For Gadberry and Hiltz, the numbers for teen pregnancy in Carroll did not suggest that eighth-graders needed an earlier lesson. The public schools identified one pregnant eighth-grader in the 2005-2006 school year, none in the previous two years and three in 2002-2003, according to information submitted from annual school health reports.
The numbers for pregnant 11th-graders rose to 14 in 2005-2006 from 11 in 2002-2003 and to 27 from 18 for 12th-graders during the same period.
With those statistics in mind, "I think the efforts are a bit misguided," Hiltz said. "Why are we talking about moving it to a lower grade? Why aren't we talking about what we can do to make it more effective, if we need to?"
The family-life committee also had provided the board with a portion of an assessment of community strengths and needs, spearheaded by the Partnership for a Healthier Carroll County.
That assessment included a survey of households with children under age 18. Among those parents interviewed, more than 75 percent said youth in the 11-17 age range should receive "comprehensive information" when it comes to abstinence, decisions about sex, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.
The remaining households favored abstinence or abstinence-based education, which would make little or no mention of the other concepts.
The survey also indicated that almost two-thirds of parents in households with children under age 18 had discussed sexual behavior with their kids, mostly touching on abstinence, sexually transmitted diseases, contraception and pregnancy.
Given the information from the assessment and other resources, the family life committee felt "that it's important that the students get accurate information at a younger age, that ninth grade is too late," said Linda Kephart, the school system's supervisor of health and elementary physical education. The committee includes health teachers, parents and high school students, she said.
With today's society and trends among teenagers, teaching methods of contraception beyond abstinence a year earlier is a necessity, said Dawn Rathgeber, a health teacher at Westminster's East Middle School.
Northwest Middle's health teacher Edna McNemar said providing contraceptive information could be helpful to "a small population of students," whose families are not communicating as strongly as others.
"If they're at least given the option of contraceptions and given a basic explanation of them, hopefully that will help them to make healthier choices," McNemar said. "Without any knowledge, they can't make as healthy of a choice."
Jessica Reid, who teaches health at Sykesville's Oklahoma Road Middle School, agreed.
Young teens hear a lot from their older peers, Reid said, and it is not always correct.
"If they hear the wrong information ... they're totally going to get the wrong idea," Reid said. Better to present them with the "right facts" beforehand, she added.
Rathgeber said some parents express relief when they preview health-course material.
"Because it is such an uncomfortable topic for everybody, I think sometimes parents do appreciate the school taking" it on, she said.
And for those parents who remain wary of the subject, they can choose for their children to opt out of the class - something only a few of Rathgeber's and Reid's students do, they said.