FARGO - A voluntary, federal-grant funded sex education program for teenagers that was once halted, then restarted by North Dakota State University administrators, is nearing the midpoint of its third and final year.
“Reach One Teach One North Dakota” was put on hold in early 2013 because of its partnership with Planned Parenthood and what was thought to be a valid state law prohibiting the use of government funds by agencies that perform, refer or encourage abortions.
The move prompted passionate faculty protests and lively open forums on the NDSU campus about academic freedom.
A month later, state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the law was not valid, allowing the program to go forward.
Since then, the program has taught comprehensive sex education and adulthood preparation skills during weekly sessions on the NDSU campus to more than 200 Fargo-area teens.
The teens are sometimes referred to the program by school counselors or faith-based organizations, but more often by youth organizations that work with teens facing foster care or homelessness, or who are LGBTQ, refugees, new Americans or Native Americans.
Because of their more unstable or unpredictable life circumstances, those groups are at a disproportionately higher risk for teen pregnancy.
“The intent of the program really is to prevent teen pregnancy,” said Molly Secor-Turner, an assistant NDSU nursing professor and researcher who helped secure the $1.2 million grant that funds the program.
“There’s nothing else like this in Fargo or the state of North Dakota,” she said.
Secor-Turner said the program can’t be offered in the public school setting because of a state law that requires abstinence-based education, with a focus on the benefits of abstaining from sex outside of marriage.
“We do talk about abstinence, but we also talk about a lot of other things,” she said.
Research shows most people support adolescents having access to comprehensive and accurate sexual health education, said Brandy Randall, a researcher and associate professor of human development and family science at NDSU. She was also instrumental in getting the grant.
“There tends to be a very small minority that thinks kids don’t need this,” Randall said.
The $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services may seem a hefty amount for the number of students it’s helped, but Secor-Turner said some people don’t realize what it costs to run a program made possible by federal funding.
She said about 25 percent of the total dollar amount goes to the university for doing the administrative work associated with the grant.
The grant also covers salary and benefits for two full-time educators contracted through Planned Parenthood, partial salaries for Secor-Turner and Randall, and their travel to conferences for training required under the grant.
It also pays for two graduate students to do ongoing data analysis from the program, and to file reports every six months with the federal government.
“It’s a resource-intensive program, but that’s also what makes it effective,” Secor-Turner said.
In addition to educational materials, the program covers associated costs for the participants. Grad students pick up the teens from home, school or work for class and drive them home afterward. The teens are also fed a hot meal prepared by the facilitators or by the catering service at NDSU.
Incentives are also part of the mix.
For attending class regularly, participants can earn useful items such as soap, shampoo, deodorant and socks.
Perhaps the most prized incentive involves peer education, which is a big focus of the program because teens are often most comfortable turning to other teens about sexual health.
If participants contact 20 of their peers and share what they’ve learned in the program, they can earn an electronic tablet device.
Secor-Turner said the incentives help teens come to the class regularly, ensuring that the information “sticks.”
“When you compare it to the cost of what a teen pregnancy is, it’s actually a really good investment,” she said.
Reach One Teach One offers “medically accurate, age appropriate” comprehensive sex education and covers a range of options for pregnancy prevention from abstinence to birth control.
“We don’t promote one over the other,” said class facilitator Katie Christensen of Planned Parenthood.
Students also learn about avoiding sexual violence and sexually transmitted infections.
Taye Miranda-Kapaun, a 14-year-old freshman at Fargo North High School, signed up for the class after being referred from another NDSU program, and because his mom wanted him to.
He was admittedly nervous at first.
“You’re talking about some stuff you really don’t want to talk about with random people,” Miranda-Kapaun said.“But after a couple of times you go there, you become friends, and it’s pretty fun.”
A good portion of the class also has the teens practicing communication skills, goal setting and decision-making about sexual and general health and well-being.
“By practicing having those conversations, that helps break down some of the discomfort about talking about a topic that’s really taboo,” Randall said.
“As the program goes on, you see them become more comfortable using the medically accurate terminology and you see them become more articulate about expressing different boundaries,” Christensen said.
Success of the program is measured through surveys filled out by students before the program, upon completion of it and three months afterward at a “graduation” party.
Christensen said results indicate the teens know more about their sexual health, have more favorable attitudes toward using condoms and contraceptives among those who are already sexually active, and have more intentions to decrease sexually risky behavior.
The federal government also tries to ensure good reporting about the effectiveness of the program.
“There’s a strong effort to make sure taxpayer dollars on programs like this are well spent,” Randall said.
The three-year grant ends in the fall, and Secor-Turner said she and Randall intend to apply for another one.
The remaining months of the grant will focus on training other community partners.
“We want this to be a topic that doesn’t just exist in this course,” Secor-Turney said. “We want other organizations to do it as well.”
She looks at this kind of education as a human rights issue.
“As adults, we don’t have the right to keep information from young people,” Secor-Turner said.
And it’s personal for Randall, who said she had no access to sex education as a teen and became pregnant when she was a 19-year-old college student.
“My story turned out fine, but that isn’t true for everybody,” Randall said.
“We owe it to our kids and their futures to make sure they have information to make the best possible choices.”