Survey Said . . .
“The Portland School Committee voted last night to give birth control pills to middle schoolers,” I told the class, holding up a copy of the Portland Press Herald. Several students were quick to tell me and each other that they had seen the story on the news. “Okay! one person speak at a time! Please!” I said over the din. “Raise your hand if you have something to say. Can one of you sum this up?”
A girl down back said, “Kids at the King Middle School will be able to get birth control pills if their parents give permission, but they won’t necessarily know about it.” Others were holding up their hands enthusiastically, waiting for me to call on them.
“That sounds contradictory,” I said. “Parents give permission, but they might not know about their kid getting birth control pills?”
“It’s confusing,” she said, “but parents give permission for their child to go to the health clinic for something else. Then the nurse, or whoever, might give them birth control and the parents won’t know. There’s a confidentiality thing going on with the kid and the nurse.”
“I get it,” I said.
“Why would sixth graders need birth control, Mr. McLaughlin?” asked a boy.
“Good question,” I answered. “It says here in the sidebar that: ‘The percentage of middle school students in Maine who reported having sexual intercourse dropped from 23 percent in 1997 to 13 percent in 2005, according to the Maine Youth Risk Behavior Survey.’ Now you guys filled out that survey in 2005 when you were in sixth grade,” I continued, “and you can see that the results from it are being used here to justify the school committee’s decision. Do you think the surveys are accurate?”
They looked at each other for a second, seemingly perplexed. “Oh yeah,” said a girl. “I remember that.” Several others nodded as they recalled the survey too.
“The survey indicated that, back in 1997 when you were only three years old, about one out of four middle schoolers were having sex,” I continued. “So, of course you were too young to know if that’s accurate or not. But you were eleven when you filled out the survey in 2005 and those results indicated that one in eight middle schoolers were having sex. Those are your answers and the answers from other kids around the state that are being used here. Does that one-out-of-eight statistic sound right to you?”
“You can’t go by what kids wrote on those,” said a boy. Most other students also voiced skepticism. A dozen side conversations sprang up.
“Okay,! Okay!” I said, trying to bring them all back. “Why not?”
“Nobody’s going to tell the truth on those,” someone said.
“Why not?” I asked again. They all wanted to talk at once. “One at a time!” I said again. Raise your hands!”
“First of all,” said a girl, “kids would be afraid the teacher would know what they wrote.”
“But they were supposed to be anonymous,” I said. “You didn’t put your name on them.”
“But teachers would know what your handwriting looked like and they could find out,” she said.
“Or they’d get the results back from the state saying there were X number of kids at Molly Ockett Middle School having sex, and the teacher could probably figure out who those kids were,” said another student. “They sort of suspect already.”
“Or they’d be afraid the kid sitting beside them would see what they wrote,” said another.
“I see,” I said. “So, were the results under-reporting sexual activity among middle school kids? Over-reporting it? Or were they just unreliable?” I asked them.
“Well,” said a boy, “Boys would probably put that they were having sex more than they really were, and girls would probably put that they were having it less. That’s the way it is.”
“I see. So would they balance each other out?”
“It’s all unreliable,” said a girl. “They shouldn’t go by what was on those surveys.”
“I think kids would be more tempted to have sex if the school passed out birth control pills,” said a boy.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because it’s like the school is saying it’s okay when they give students pills for it.”
I posed the question to several classes. Did they think middle school students were more likely to have sex if they got pills from the school? Overwhelmingly, they did think so. There were two or three in each group who didn’t, saying that kids who decided to have sex were going to do it anyway, no matter what the school did.
“This story is getting a lot of attention across the country,” I told them. “We haven’t heard the last on it. Keep watching the news, okay?”