By Marlena E. Bermel

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Addressing Shortcomings in Sexual Health Education in New Mexico Schools

Evidence shows that sexual health education for adolescents can reduce risky sexual behavior and promote better health outcomes. This not only makes for healthier teens, it can also lead to better graduation rates.

But to achieve these goals the information must be comprehensive, medically accurate, inclusive of all students and developmentally appropriate. While New Mexico law supports teaching sexual health education in schools, it does not explicitly require that content be medically accurate. In fact, state laws do not require or recommend any specific curriculum.

Elizabeth Dickson, PhD, RN, assistant professor in The University of New Mexico College of Nursing, conducted a research study that surveyed secondary school educators, nurses and administrators throughout New Mexico.

The study found that sexual health education is not being taught equitably in New Mexico's schools. Only 15% of participants reported using any type of evidence-based curriculum, and most (90%) reported they were unaware whether any assessment of sexual health education instruction in their schools had been done.

Dickson published a report, Understanding Sexual Health Education in New Mexico, in which she recommended the following steps:

  • Provide recurring training/professional development and resource support
  • Engage the local community about teaching sexual health education in schools
  • Convene stakeholders to improve sexual health education policy at the state and local levels

The report validates many of the barriers health educators face in their work. For those educators across New Mexico who believed these challenges were unique to them, this report shows that is not the case.

The New Mexico Public Education Department and the New Mexico Department of Health are supportive of Dickson's work. She has presented her findings at conferences and community meetings for both agencies, as well as to community groups and professional organizations. She has also testified before the joint meeting of the Legislative Health and Human Services and Education Service Committees in 2019.

Dickson currently is conducting focus groups with young people around the state about their experience with sexual health education in school.

"If all of this is really to improve outcomes of our youth, we can't do it without them," Dickson says. Her goal is to gather the perspective of recent high school graduates - what their sexual health education experience was like and what they thought was missing - to inform policy changes and professional development for school health staff.

Dickson is working with state agencies and community partners to design professional development for school health educators to deliver comprehensive, medically accurate and developmentally appropriate for school staff across the state.

Categories: College of Nursing