District considers new substance abuse prevention, sexual health curriculum

In an interview last week regarding Archuleta School District 50 Joint’s School/Community Prevention Project, district Prevention Coordinator Anna Royer said, “This represents a new approach for the district.”

Royer, recently appointed by the school board to the newly-created position of prevention coordinator for the School/Community Prevention Project (SCPP), is now charged with choosing a districtwide curriculum to address matters of substance abuse and sexual health. However, the program represents anything but a singular approach by the district and school officials.

“A lot of people are putting time and energy into this,” said Assistant Superintendent Bill Esterbrook, “This is a community program that I feel good about.”

With direction and guidance from the district’s Health and Wellness Committee — a 29-member board including school staff, parents, students and professionals — SCPP will not only reach out to Pagosa area residents for input, but will also provide outreach to community members with prevention efforts.

While taking community input into consideration, the curriculum decided on by SCPP will be evidence-based, i.e., drawn from scientific research, bringing the district in line with mandates from Colorado House Bill 1292. Signed by Gov. Bill Ritter in 2007, HB 1292 stipulates that Colorado public school sex education programs, “maintain content standards for the curriculum that are based on scientific research,” and, at the same time, “emphasize abstinence and teach that sexual abstinence is the only certain way and the most effective way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and infections.”

Royer stated that HB 1292, “Is a move from abstinence-only to abstinence-based, and includes instruction on contraception.”

Knowing that, for some Pagosa area residents, an introduction of contraception into the dialogue could be controversial, Royer added that, “Parents can opt out (of the program), partially or fully.”

In fact, HB 1292 requires school districts to “establish a procedure to exempt a student, upon request of the parent or guardian of such student, from a specific portion of the health education program on the grounds that it is contrary to the religious or personal beliefs.”

Addressing issues of substance abuse prevention as well as sexual health, SCPP curriculum will be “skills-based” as well as evidence-based. “Evidence-based is skills-based,” said Royer.

“It’s moving beyond an instructor holding up a joint and saying, ‘This is a marijuana cigarette and it’s bad,’” said Esterbrook, “It’s giving kids the skills to make the right decision, skills like conflict resolution and developing prosocial attitudes.”

SCPP curriculum will be evaluated Monday, March 16, as community members and school officials meet to examine and discuss materials that could be picked up for the program. According to Royer, once accepted, the curriculum will be incrementally implemented with introduction into the schools planned for this fall. Substance abuse prevention will focus on elementary and high school students, while comprehensive sexual health education will target sixth, seventh and ninth grades.

Targeting age groups remains true to the vision of an evidence-based program. Presenting results from the October 2008 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey at the district’s Tuesday night board meeting, Royer reported results showed that, of kids in Archuleta county schools (who took the survey), 23 percent reported they’d used alcohol before the age of 13, while 19 percent said they’d used tobacco and 14 percent reported using marijuana before turning 13. Numerous studies report that early use of alcohol or drugs indicates a high level of risk for substance abuse and dependence, criminal activity, failure in school, and contracting sexually transmitted disease.

Correspondingly, students surveyed were asked about sexual activity, and 54 percent indicated they had not had sexual intercourse. Of those surveyed who indicated they had engaged in sexual intercourse, 20 percent of survey respondents reported first having sexual intercourse between the ages of 14 and 15, with 10 percent between the ages of 12 and 13, 13 percent saying it occurred between the ages of 16 and 17, and 3 percent saying they’d had sexual intercourse before they turned 11 years old — almost half of the total surveyed saying their first experience with sexual intercourse took place before the age 18. Of all respondents who reported sexual intercourse, only 24 percent of all females and 31 percent of the males said they had used a condom before their last sexual encounter.

Although results of the local survey are largely in line with state and local numbers, Royer sees a need to proceed with SCPP and the community involvement it demands. “We need to keep as many of the people at the table as we can.”

The program and Royer’s position are funded entirely by grants. A recent $20,000 grant awarded to the district from the El Pomar foundation supplemented federal and state grants awarded to support the program. In fact, when SCPP and Royer’s position were first proposed to the board last November, it was stipulated that part of Prevention Coordinator’s position would entail the pursuit of grants to fund the position.

Moving forward with choosing appropriate curriculum for SCPP, Royer continues to solicit input from the community at large. “What we want to do is take what we have out to the community, to go out to a group and explain what we’re doing and why.”

Anyone interested in giving feedback or input to the program are encouraged to contact Anna Royer at 264-2794, Ext. 476, or by e-mail, aroyer@pagosa.k12.co.us.

jim@pagosasun.com