The Other 60 Percent

Campaign invites uncomfortable conversations

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has launched a campaign to get young people, parents, schools, policy makers and community groups to start talking about something likely to make many of them squirm.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has released a 64-page document exploring strategies for improving youth sexual health.

Dubbed Youth Sexual Health in Colorado: A Call to Action, the campaign hopes to encourage youths to delay sexual activity and to use condoms and contraception consistently and correctly if they are engaged in sexual activity.

But beyond that, organizers hope it ultimately results in giving more Colorado teens access to supportive relationships that will allow them to finish their educations and achieve their economic and career goals.

“Youth. Sex. This topic can turn off a lot of people,” said Anne-Marie Braga, director of adolescent health initiatives for CDPHE. “I can’t say enough about our department really taking leadership on this. It’s time to normalize this issue and do something about it.”

CDPHE has released a 64-page booklet summarizing the state of youth sexual health in Colorado and providing specific strategies for young people, their families, their communities and state policy makers to follow to have a positive impact on the issue.

Developing the Call to Action involved convening informal focus groups of parents and of youth around the state. The youth were asked to share their experiences about what they want regarding their sexual health, what works and what doesn’t. Parents and adult mentors were asked for their perspectives. In addition, more than 700 people responded to a statewide survey.

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The young people expressed a strong desire for comprehensive ongoing sex education in school that would help them figure out how to access appropriate information and resources. Parents indicated that they weren’t always sure they had the most reliable information, and even if they did, they weren’t always comfortable sharing that information with their children.

The interviews also underscored the need for young people to have trusted adults to whom they can turn – parents, yes, but other adult mentors as well. Failure to provide that can have devastating long-term consequences.

“Teen pregnancy and sexual health is dear to my heart,” said Sen. Irene Aguilar, a Denver Democrat and a physician practicing at Denver Health’s Westside Family Health Center, who spoke at the Oct. 27 kickoff for the Call to Action, held at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature.

“I know firsthand what a difference it can make to be educated about sexuality and to be able to take control of that. Teens don’t want adults telling them what to do, but they need information to make their own decisions,” she said.

“If someone has uncomfortable situations happening around sexuality, it can lead to depression or suicide,” Aguilar said. “An unwanted pregnancy can change the trajectory of your whole life. Teens who get pregnant are more likely than others not to finish high school and to live in poverty, as are their children. So this impacts not only you now, but future generations.”

“Thank you for this groundbreaking work,” she told organizers, “and thank you for pushing those lazy adults into talking about things they don’t want to talk about,” she told the young people gathered at the kickoff.

Rep. Cindy Acree, an Aurora Republican considered one of the legislature’s experts in health care policy, was unable to attend the kickoff on Saturday, but she sent greetings and shared her own experience with teen pregnancy. Her daughter is a single, teenage mother who lives with Acree. “She works two jobs, has little social life and no money to do extra things,” Acree said in her prepared remarks. “Suddenly she is grown up and dealing with all these issues.”

Youth sexual health involves more than simply avoiding pregnancy or catching a sexually-transmitted disease, say organizers. A sexually healthy person is able to decide for himself or herself when to engage in a sexual relationship, free from oppression, exploitation and abuse. A sexually healthy person knows how to access information and can talk comfortably with health care providers, as well as family and friends.

Scarlett Jimenez, a student at Aurora’s Hinkley High School, is one of the youth leaders advising the state on youth sexual health.

In Colorado, teen birth rates have fallen steadily over the past decade, down nearly 37 percent since 1992. This mirrors what has happened nationwide. In addition, sexual activity among young people is slightly less than the national average. According to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, nearly 40 percent of all Colorado high schoolers report having had sex at some point.

But not all the news is good. Condom use is spotty, rates of chlamydia are increasing and sexual violence is on the rise.

“On average, 17 babies are born to teenagers in Colorado every day – about one baby every 84 minutes,” said Scarlett Jimenez, a senior at Aurora’s Hinkley High School, and one of the young people serving as advisors to the Call to Action campaign. Jimenez said she’s also witnessed hate and bullying around sexuality, and she called on schools to provide more comprehensive sex education, which she said would decrease bullying.

Elaine Gantz Berman, a member of the state Board of Education, said that lawmakers can pass enlightened, well-meaning policies, but unless those policies are implemented, little will change.

“We have a comprehensive sex education policy in this state,” she said. “Is it being implemented in every district? Absolutely not. We need to hold districts’ feet to the fire to make sure they’re implementing these standards.”

Berman suggested that it might be possible to tie youth sexual health to initiatives related to childhood obesity, an issue around which there is tremendous interest and funding. “Maybe there are ways we can combine the importance of nutrition, physical activity and health into comprehensive sex education. We need to be creative as policy makers,” she said.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”

Raised Voices

Balloons, hearts, and ‘die-ins’: How Colorado students marked National Walkout Day

Students gather at the Colorado State Capitol to protest gun violence. (Melanie Asmar)

Thousands of students across Colorado poured out of their schools Wednesday to protest gun violence and to remember 17 victims of last month’s deadly shooting in Florida. Chalkbeat’s Melanie Asmar walked with students from East High School to the Colorado State Capitol, where Gov. John Hickenlooper and Speaker of the House Cristanta Duran urged them to remain politically active.

The protests took different forms at other schools – and not everyone wanted the event to be political. There were balloon releases, voter registration drives, and public “die-ins” at major intersections. And in one Denver area school district, a surge of threats cast a pall over events.

Here’s a look at #NationalWalkoutDay from around the region.

Students at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver marched in silent solidarity.

In Colorado, teenagers can register to vote before their 18th birthday.

At schools in the Adams 12 district north of Denver, a big uptick in threats the night before – and a warning letter from the superintendent – led many students to skip school altogether.

Students at McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver spoke with their shirts. Instead of “Thoughts & Prayers,” they asked for “Policy & Change.”

But their event was not all about politics. They formed a heart with their bodies and read the names of the dead.

At Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School, students promised to work to change school culture.

Many schools released balloons to honor the victims and found other ways to advocate for change.

Unlike some Colorado districts, St. Vrain didn’t officially condone the walkouts, but students at Longmont schools walked out anyway.

Students at Denver’s South High School have been vocal about gun violence. In a recent visit from U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, they rejected the idea that armed teachers would make them safer and demanded that lawmakers do more.

Students from one of Colorado’s KIPP charter schools used their bodies to send a message at a major intersection in west Denver.

Students of color in Denver reminded the public that gun violence is not limited to mass shootings.

Students aren’t just marching. They’re also writing their representatives. State Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, tweeted a picture of her inbox full of emails from students.

Colorado carries the legacy of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, where a memorial asks urgently as ever: “How have things changed; what have we learned?”