Katie Morgan, a teen parent coordinator for Oklahoma City Public Schools, is pictured
Aug. 2 in her office at U.S. Grant High School. [Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman]
The student was nervous when she tapped on Katie Morgan’s door.
Her period was a week late. She needed a pregnancy test.
Morgan supplied the test and waited with the student as a couple minutes ticked away. She gave the girl a hug when a blue bar indicated the test was negative. Morgan could see the relief on the student’s face. She took the opportunity with a captive audience to talk to the student about contraception.
Later that morning, another student stopped by Morgan’s office inside U.S. Grant High School in south Oklahoma City. Through misty eyes, the student told Morgan she was having a miscarriage. Morgan had a hug for her, too. She asked the student how she was doing, answered her questions, explained to her that miscarriages are more common than most people realize and assured her she did nothing wrong.
Soon after, Morgan got a message from another student, the mother of a 1-year-old, who wanted to know what medicine she should take for a cold and allergies. The student snapped some photos and sent them to Morgan from the drugstore while trying to discern what the generic options were of the medications Morgan suggested.
The roller coaster of a morning was a typical day’s work for Morgan, who serves as a teen parent coordinator for Oklahoma City Public Schools.
With a caseload of about 250, Morgan works with students who are parenting or pregnant. She also fields questions from students who think they might be pregnant or who aren’t pregnant but want to know about topics such as contraceptives or sexually transmitted diseases.
“We do not mandate comprehensive sexual education in our schools in Oklahoma, and I think that’s our big problem,” said Morgan, addressing the fact that Oklahoma has the second highest teen birthrate in the nation. “We have recently gotten much, much better about getting into our schools from outside agencies to teach comprehensive, medically accurate, evidence-based sexual education in our schools, but now we’re playing catch up.”
Morgan’s work at Grant and other schools is part of a larger comprehensive strategy for combating teen pregnancy in Oklahoma County, and it appears to be working.
The pregnancy rate of women aged 15 to 19 in Oklahoma County has declined by 38 percent since 2013, right around the time a group of nonprofit and social agencies came together to address the county’s high rate.
“Teen pregnancy is a really complex issue and one simple approach is not going to solve a really complex issue like this,” said Laura Lang, CEO of Thrive OKC, a nonprofit that provides evidence-based sex education curriculum in some districts, markets teen-friendly family planning services and works with other organizations to develop teen pregnancy prevention efforts.
“You have to attack this with a wide approach.”
Reducing teen pregnancy rate
Thrive OKC launched in 2013 with a goal to cut the county’s teen pregnancy rate by one third by 2020.
That goal was reached in 2017.
“It’s good news and it shows that what we are doing holistically is working,” Lang said. “Reducing this rate means reducing other social ills.”
A child born to a teen mother, to parents who are unmarried or to a mother without a high school diploma is nine times more likely to grow up in poverty, according to the Central Oklahoma Teen Pregnancy Prevention Collaboration.
In 2006, six local organizations began working together to develop a teen pregnancy reduction strategy, which lead to the creation of the collaboration. Groups such as the Kirkpatrick Family Fund, Variety Care, Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma, Oklahoma City-County Health Department, the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy and Teen emPower! were some of the founding organizations.
Drawing on successful strategies in Milwaukee and South Carolina, which both had seen significant teen birthrate reductions, the collaboration developed a strategic plan, which led to the creation of Thrive OKC.
One of the motivating factors the group attempted to promote was the potential cost savings in reducing the teen birthrate. For every $1 spent on teen pregnancy prevention programs, $17 in tax-dollars is saved through a decreased need of government-funded social services, according to a report by the University of Iowa’s Public Policy Center.
“We believe that teen pregnancy can either be an on ramp into generational poverty, or, if we are able to prevent a teen from becoming pregnant, that can help stop them from falling into a cycle of generational poverty,” Lang said.
While Oklahoma County has the most number of teen births in Oklahoma, teen pregnancy is high statewide.
Oklahoma has the second highest teen birthrate in the nation. Only Arkansas’ is higher.
But Oklahoma’s rate dropped by 11 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Is success at risk?
While the rate is trending in a positive direction, some worry that success could be in jeopardy.
Federal Teen Pregnancy Prevention program funding, which totals about $1.2 million annually for the Oklahoma City-County Health Department and is dispersed to several partners, including Thrive OKC, could end next year.
The Trump administration announced last year it was ending the grant, even though there was still two years of promised funding left in the program.
Multiple grantees filed a lawsuit and a judge kept the funding in place for at least another year.
The federal government has appealed that decision.
“The funding has been quite critical,” said Paulette Lassiter, a tier 1B project manager for the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.
Lassiter said the funds helped the department reach more than 5,500 students in Oklahoma City schools last school year and believed the funding was important in the state decreasing its teen birthrate.
Access to contraception is an important piece of Thrive OKC’s plan, which includes partnering with local health clinics. Forty-three percent of Oklahoma high school students have had sexual intercourse, according to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Oklahoma State Department of Health.
But advocates say education might be the most important piece.
In Oklahoma City Public Schools, students in sixth grade and up receive sexual education in their classrooms from outside agencies, including through Thrive OKC. It is an opt-in program, so parents must consent for their children to take the class, Morgan said. Parents can view the curriculum, which are all medically accurate and evidence-based, she said.
Morgan said she has noticed a difference in the students she knows who have had the education for a couple of years.
Students need all forms of education, ranging from abstinence to what to do if they are sexually active, Morgan said. They are going to get the information from somewhere, so getting accurate information from a reliable source is important, she said. Just because a student learns about intercourse and contraception doesn’t mean the student is going to have sex, Morgan said.
“That’s the stigma that’s kind of attached to it,” she said. “If we teach them, they’re going to do it. And I’m like, well, here’s the thing. They’re already doing it. How about we teach them to do it safely?”
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