A large Oregon school district just got a refresher course in the birds and the bees.
And it stung.
Pushback was swift and loud by teachers, staff members and students when the Salem-Keizer school district, which includes more than 40,000 students, learned in October that they must report sexually active teens to law enforcement. The policy stems from a well-intentioned place, which is to protect kids from sexual abuse.
Yes, seriously. Under Oregon law, anyone under 18 cannot legally give consent, even if the teens say it’s consensual.
So, if a 16-year-old, for example, confides in a favorite teacher or counselor that she wants to get on birth control, or a 15-year-old shares that he’s been thrown out of his house because he was caught with a same-sex fellow student, that trusted adult is mandated to report the youths’ sexual activity, or risk fines and job loss.
The announcement, which district leaders say is merely a clarification of the law already in place, spurred a student-led change.org petition calling for an end to the mandate, a protest at the State Capitol and more than a few teachers saying they’ll just ignore it.
Perhaps the strangest aspect is the timing. When it comes to teens and sex, we should be enforcing only one thing, and that’s ice cream all around: The stats haven’t been this good in decades.
We are witnessing historic declines in teen pregnancy — down 67 percent nationwide since the peak year of 1991. Minnesota is third-lowest in the country in teen pregnancy rates, although racial disparities remain.
Teens are postponing sex. And they’re acting, largely, responsibly when they do become sexually active, with fewer partners and less consumption of alcohol or drugs before having sex.
Even so, by the end of high school, nearly six in 10 12th-graders nationwide report having had sex. Criminalizing hormones seems shortsighted, to say the least.
“Under this legislation, we could assume we’re going to make criminals out of about 60 percent of young people in this country,” said Bill Albert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “That seems crazy to me.”
In Minnesota, the age of consent is 16, but it’s more complicated than that. For instance, the age difference between parties also is considered. Minnesota’s laws also prohibit sexual activity between those under 18 and adults in positions of authority over them. And no one age 12 and under can consent to sex.
Laurie Strunk, who has worked in child protection and as a licensed school psychologist, said she’d find herself “in a heap of trouble” should the Oregon mandate come to Minnesota.
“I would report issues of sexual assault, including situations in which there is a significant age gap between sexual partners and sexual abuse,” she said.
“However, I would not report consensual sexual activity among students who are age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate for relationships. I feel the law is overintrusive, impinges on privacy rights and, frankly, would negatively impact the professional relationship I may have with students.”
Nancy M. Fitzsimons, a professor in the department of social work at Minnesota State University, Mankato, had similar feelings as well as concerns “around the potential for who gets reported and who doesn’t,” she said. “There’s a lot of data around how students of color are disproportionately punished.”
She added, “You introduce into this a whole lot of layers, based upon who the kids are” in terms of race, gender, socioeconomic status, ability and sexual orientation. “Instead of creating mechanisms for them to come to adults to talk through issues, we are taking these very reactive, punitive approaches, which seem to be the opposite of what we would want to do to create channels of communication with young people.”
A district spokeswoman told Portland-based KOIN-TV that reporting a young person won’t mean that “police are going to be knocking on the door of students. What it does allow for is an abundance of caution in ensuring that our children are safe.”
Albert, of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, is willing to give the leaders of the Oregon system the benefit of the doubt. We all want to protect our kids from adults preying on them, and the law should step in in those cases. But most teenagers, Albert said, are having sex with someone their age, or maybe a year or two older.
The question for Oregon, Albert said, is “Why mess with success? The credit for this historic change and these profound declines goes to teens themselves, who are clearly making better decisions. They understand that it’s not a good idea to be a parent at 15. They’re thinking about their futures and the future of their children.”
But, he added, there’s no more important partner in making those decisions than parents.
Study after study reveals that kids really do want to hear from Mom, Dad or other adults who are lovingly raising them, about healthy sexuality, positive body image, abstinence as an option, delaying sex, safe sex and our belief in their limitless futures.
“Teens consistently say it’s parents — not peers, not popular culture, not even their partners,” Albert said. “That’s important and good news for parents to know.”
But young adults who aren’t lucky enough to have that built-in support system simply must have other trusted adults to turn to, something that’s not lost on the teens.
“Some relationships between parents and children are incredible to watch,” wrote 11th-grader Angel Hudson on the change.org site. She worries, though, about her friends who come from abusive homes and are too fearful to turn to their parents for such delicate advice.
Said Hudson: “A trusted adult, teacher, counselor, coach, adviser, security guard, bus driver and even janitor are essential.”
Here’s hoping that Oregon rethinks its measure and protects those connections.