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.

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

Story time

This Memphis teacher’s favorite student didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught him a powerful lesson.

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner teaches at East High School in Memphis.

When one of Daniel Warner’s favorite students refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, he could feel the tension in himself rising.

It was August 2017, the first week of classes, and Warner said he knew how important setting a tone was during the first few days of school.

“Didn’t my teacher prep program teach me that I have to set high expectations in that first week or the year is lost?” asked Warner, a U.S. history teacher at East High School in Memphis. “If I don’t set those, we’re done for.”

But before Warner reacted, he said he took a few moments to reflect on what could be going through her head.

Chalkbeat TN Storytelling Event
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner tells his story to a crowded room.

It was the Monday after a violent white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stories of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick were again dominating the news, as he remained ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Instead of punishing her, Warner said, he refocused on what she might be thinking through as a black American high schooler.

“The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers,” Warner said.

Warner was one of seven educators and students who participated in a February story storytelling night hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The stories told centered around school discipline practices, a topic Chalkbeat recently dove into in this special report.

Video Credit: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange. The Social Exchange is a pay-as-you can PR & content creation firm for nonprofits and responsible, women/minority owned businesses.

Here’s an edited transcript of Warner’s story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

It’s a week into school in early August. And kids are just trickling into my senior homeroom mostly asleep, sitting quietly in their desk as 18-year-olds do at 7:15 in the morning…And then morning announcements come on. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

So I stand up, and I say, “Alright y’all, go ahead and stand up with me.” I see these seniors throwing their bodies out of their seats, trying to stand up while they are still asleep. And almost everyone stands up but one girl doesn’t…  

So, my eyes meet this girls eyes as she stays in her seat during the pledge. And I can feel the tension in me of my authority being challenged in the room. And I wonder if everyone else is looking at me, my other students. So I give her a teacher look meant to communicate, “Are you going to stand up?” And she looks at me from across the room and shakes her head and mouths, “I can’t.”

So this student was one of my best students the year before in honors U.S. History. She engaged deeply with the material and personally. She asked questions of herself, of her country, of democracy, what this whole thing is about. She processed the double consciousness she feels of being both black and American. And she did so while being kind, thoughtful hardworking. The student you think of that makes you want to cry, you love that kid so much. I wonder what’s going on, what is she thinking about…

This is a Monday and the weekend before had been the white supremacists march in Charlottesville… When she told me, that she couldn’t stand, I went and sat in the desk next to her…I asked, “What’s keeping you from standing up?”

She started by saying, “I hate,” and she stopped herself. She took a breath, calmed herself down and said, “I just can’t.” And so we just sat there for a second. I could see as I got closer to her that she was flooded with emotion and feeling something deeply. And so we let the announcements end and I tell her, “When I say the pledge I say it more as a hope and a prayer…that there would be liberty and justice for all.” She said, “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” like a good U.S. History student, but she said “things don’t’ seem to be headed that way right now…

The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers. She showed me that I was a little too focused on how I was being perceived by other students in the classroom. And that I wasn’t focused enough on her and what she might be processing. As teachers, we have all of this opportunity to escalate conflict, I’ve done it plenty of times. But we also have an opportunity to be gracious to students who are working out who they are in public…

This girl wasn’t being disengaged by saying no to me, she was being especially engaged with who she is… When we talk about restorative justice, the first step we have to take is for us as educators and adults, and it’s doing your own emotional work. And we have to ask ourselves questions about our identities. You can only lead someone somewhere if you’ve gone there yourself…

What is it about us when it sets us off when a kid says no to us? Why are we that insecure? … When we pay attention to ourselves, our emotional status, the hurt we’ve felt, the pain we’ve lived through, that is when we can begin paying attention to how formative schools are. They are spaces where folks are working out their identities in public, and that’s when you feel the most self conscious and vulnerable and in need of grace offered by someone else.

So, I hope as we talk about this, we think of ways where we can make school a space for people to be figuring out who they are and not just punished into compliance. In high poverty schools, you talk about compliance like it’s the ultimate behavior. I hope we can make schools where students can learn what it is to seek justice, even when and especially when, things just don’t seem to be headed that way right now.