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Gloucester teen lobbies for sex education

By Jillian Jorgensen
Globe Correspondent / March 24, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Zoe Paddock has not yet found romance. But when the 14-year-old does fall in love, she wants to be ready. That, she said, is part of why she came here this week to talk to lawmakers about that ever-awkward topic: sex education.

"Having the information doesn't mean you're going to use it," she said.

Paddock was part of a delegation of teens taking part in an interfaith sex education training program that gives young people the chance to lobby Congress to vote for a bill to provide federal funding specifically for comprehensive sexual education in schools.

The federal government provides grants only for abstinence-only sexual education in public schools.

"I think it's not fair for people not to get the information that they need to be healthy," Paddock said. "I think everyone deserves the same amount of information and that it should be accurate."

Last year, Paddock's hometown of Gloucester made international headlines when 17 students at Gloucester High School, which she will attend next year, became pregnant and there were reports of a "pregnancy pact" among the girls.

"Being from Gloucester gives me a really good talking point and gets people to listen pretty well," she said. "After going through all this . . . it just portrayed [Gloucester] in a light of 'Oh, look at all these pregnant girls? What are they teaching their kids?' "

Massachusetts stopped accepting federal funding for abstinence-only education in 2007.

In Gloucester, where the school district's sex education curriculum has been under review for the past year, the main focus is in middle school, said Superintendent Christopher Farmer.

"While we recognize that abstinence is one course of action, we recognize that in the real world that doesn't always happen. And we certainly, as part of our program, enable students to understand the various ways of avoiding pregnancy," Farmer said.

There is one health teacher at Gloucester High School, where Farmer said resources are limited and health classes are not required.

The school also has a health center that, with parental permission, can provide students with contraception.

Yesterday, Paddock lobbied at the offices of Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry and Representative John Tierney.

Because Kennedy and Kerry cosponsored the legislation, Paddock said her meetings with members of their staff focused on how to refocus money from abstinence-only education on comprehensive sexual education.

Zoe's mother, Beth Paddock, 51, said Zoe is suited for advocacy work.

"She feels strongly about how to help other people. She feels strongly about knowledge. She's not afraid to hold her own opinions," she said. "She's got a good heart."

Zoe Paddock, who is a Unitarian Universalist, said lobbying with the group gave her a chance to tell members of Congress that they will not lose support from all religious people for supporting comprehensive sexual education.

The Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, said the debate over sex education has been dominated by "the Christian right."

"That's our fault, because we were not willing to raise an alternative religious voice," he said.

Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, said the group opposed the bill.

"Should we be pouring more money into an approach that most schools are teaching, and yet we're seeing the birth rate beginning to go up?" Huber said.

The teenage birth rate rose in 2006 and 2007, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Zoe Paddock said she is just beginning her health class at O'Maley Middle School, and condoms and sexually transmitted diseases are on the agenda. She said abstinence-only education "works until it doesn't," and that even people who wait until marriage to have sex need information about sex.

"I think abstinence really works through fear. You hear . . . you have sex, and then you'll get a disease, and then you'll die," she said.

"I'm not saying that all abstinence programs are like that, but I'm saying that a lot of abstinence is based on fear, and I don't think that's the right way to go teaching anyone about anything."

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