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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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No-sex lesson rules Florida
The state is second to Texas in federal money for a wait-till-marriage message.
By LEONORA LAPETER ANTON, Times Staff Writer
Published July 30, 2007
Teen advisor Stephanie Mejians, 17 of Tampa, left, gives instructions during an abstinence education class at the Martin Luther King Center put on by A Woman's Place. Eric Chavez, 15, center, and Tyra Brown, 12, attended the class and volunteered to be in the skit.
[Times photo: Zach Boyden-Holmes]
In Florida, teenagers are likely to hear the following message over and over: abstain from sex.
Just ask Ashley Galloway. She's heard it about a dozen times during the last couple of years in school and at the community center where she spends her summers.
Depending on who's talking, they'll tell her to wait until marriage or a monogamous relationship.
Ashley's had a boyfriend for two months, three weeks and six days, as of today. "I'm a virgin and I'm 14 years old," said the soon-to-be a ninth-grader at Jefferson High School in Tampa.
"My parents want me to wait until marriage, but for me, I want to wait until I'm comfortable."
Across the country, abstinence education programs are in jeopardy. Eleven state health departments have rejected them. A national study in the spring showed that they don't prevent teens from engaging in sex. And Congress is debating whether to renew some of its funding.
This past year, Florida ranked second only to Texas in the amount of federal money -- $10.7-million -- it received to spread the abstinence-until-marriage message. That's $11.25 spent for every Florida teen ages 14 to 17.
A revelation last week gave opponents of abstinence-only education even more ground to criticize. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that the percentage of U.S. teens having sex has remained the same in the last few years. The same holds true for Florida teens, who are slightly above the national average when it comes to having sex.
"In Florida, abstinence education certainly seems to have taken over," said Wendy Grassi, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of southwest and Central Florida, which advocates for comprehensive sex education, including information about contraceptives. "But it's not keeping them from having sex."
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Overall, teens are waiting longer for their first sexual encounters compared with 15 years ago.
The teen birth rate in Florida has steadily declined from 69 babies for every 1,000 girls in 1990 to 42 babies in 2004. As the state Department of Health likes to point out, that's 69,000 babies that would have been born to teen girls if not for the decline.
But the number of teens having sex in Florida -- long in decline -- has leveled off in the past few years, just as it has nationally.
In 2005, some 50 percent of teens surveyed by the CDC in Florida said they abstained from sex -- about the same percentage as in 2001. The stall came about the same time Florida and other states received millions of federal dollars for abstinence education.
Abstinence-only educators say the issue is more complex than a plateau in the numbers.
"Abstinence education just happens to be the easy target to blame these kinds of things on," says David Hubbartt, program manager for More2Life, the abstinence education program of the faith-based Pregnancy Center of Pinellas County. It is using a $600,000 federal grant to reach teens.
"It's interesting that teen sex rates have been increasing and increasing and then abstinence education came onto the scene in the early 1990s and then you saw it declined," Hubbartt said. "Now there's a plateau and it's being twisted around."
He said it might be time for abstinence-only educators to evaluate what they do.
Many schools typically employ an "abstinence plus" message, which means they tell students to abstain from sex - in some cases until they enter a monogamous relationship -- and they provide information about contraceptives. But the type of message teens receive all depends on where they go to school, and who their teacher is.
In Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, teachers can invite speakers to support their sex education classes. A Woman's Place, a faith-based crisis-pregnancy center in Tampa, is invited to Hillsborough schools to present its message: abstain until marriage. But Grassi said Planned Parenthood educators are rarely invited into the classroom there.
Pinellas teachers can invite speakers from local faith-based crisis pregnancy centers or Planned Parenthood. One of its educators made 60 trips to Pinellas high schools last year.
Peggy Johns, supervisor of health education for Pinellas County Schools, said the district has had a long-standing philosophy going back to 1982 that students should learn to abstain from sex as well as methods to reduce risk if they are having sex.
"From a public health perspective, you want to be looking at preparing citizens to make risk-reducing decisions, and if you don't give them all the information, they don't have enough information to make a healthy decision," she said.
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A dozen teens sat on the stage Thursday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Tampa. They are among 50 teens hired by A Woman's Place, which received $790,000 in federal dollars to spread the abstinence until marriage message. Before them, two dozen teens, including Galloway, sat in folding chairs.
A teen adviser shares a personal story about how a friend had a baby at 16 and then another one at 17 because she drank, did drugs and had sex. Then the teen reveals it was her mother and she was one of the babies.
At the end of the hourlong session, the teens in the audience sign a pledge to abstain from sex. But after the session several reveal that they already are having sex. Others have zoned out.
"It's in my brain now," says Aaron Smiley, 15, who says he has not yet had sex.
"The message they're relaying is good but we've heard it so many times, it's hard to pay attention," adds Brandi Jenkins, 14. Still, she says she plans to abstain until she's married.
Meanwhile, Galloway, the 14-year-old, said she hasn't received much information about contraceptives or birth control. But it's okay for now, she says, because she's not ready.
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Carlos Ramirez II, also known as rapper Los-1, may represent in many ways the future of abstinence education. He is 28, married, one of 10 children who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and St. Petersburg. Four of his brothers had children out of wedlock. Two are in prison.
Ramirez works at A Woman's Place, which carried its message of abstinence from drugs, alcohol and sex until marriage to some 10,000 teenagers in Hillsborough County this past school year.
The primary goal of any abstinence program is to connect with kids, says Lesley Bateman, director of prevention services for A Woman's Place.
With a full head of twists beneath a bandanna, Ramirez talks to the kids in the slang they are used to. Then he raps.
I push wedding rings.
My culture has it backwards
Hook up first and get to know you after
Wake up naked next to a stranger
Then have mad stress cause your health's in danger.
"I tell them you wouldn't run across the street on Interstate 275 because you know there's danger out there," Ramirez said. "Sex can be very dangerous outside the bonds of marriage."
He says he doesn't provide information about birth control because the federal grant prohibits it. They can only talk about the effectiveness of condoms.
This past June, Ramirez played a few of his songs at the national conference of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, an association for abstinence educators, in St. Paul, Minn. Then he handed out 500 CDs. It has led to speaking engagements nationwide and plans to record an album.
"At first listen, it was pretty graphic," says Bateman of A Woman's Place. "Even though you hear the words every day in the presentation, when you put them to music, it was like, "Wow, nobody has ever put this to music before."
Says Ramirez, "You've got to grow with the times."
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Times staffer Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at (727) 893-8640 or firstname.lastname@example.org.