Tuesday, May 17, 2016

School Health Services Denied: NYC Overaged Middle School Students Suffer by Bernard Gassaway

Bronx teenagers with disabilities are disproportionately at risk of being three or more years older than their middle school classmates, having unintended pregnancies, and contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

New York education officials have not taken aggressive steps to provide an adequate health education, STI screening, and treatment for these vulnerable students.

Research demonstrates that these students would benefit if they received an adequate health education, STI screening and treatment. 

While limited services are available for teenagers in high schools, less is available for teenagers who spend two or more extra years in middle school largely because of their disabilities or limited language proficiencies.

National health care organizations recommend an increase in comprehensive health education in elementary, middle, and high school to prevent “health problems in the following areas: unintentional injury; violence; suicide; tobacco use and addiction; alcohol or other drug use; unintended pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and STD infection.”

According to New York City Department of Education (DOE) data, approximately 8,000 students in middle school are three or more years over-age in 2015–2016; of these, approximately 3,000 attend middle school in the Bronx. This number is slightly down from the 8,500 over-age students reported by Advocates for Children of New York in its 2014 report.

The New York State Health Department reports that teenagers account for 86.6 of 1000 pregnancies in the Bronx, the highest rate among all five boroughs. This rate is alarming when compared to Nassau County, where teenagers account for 16.2 of 1000 pregnancies.

Data from NYC’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) confirm that Bronx teens with STIs outnumber all other NYC peers. Because some STIs can lead to infertility, increased rates of STIs can also lead to increased infertility rates for Bronx teens.

New York education officials currently underemphasize health services and health education for school-aged children, which contributes to children making poor choices about sexual behaviors and increases their chances of contracting an STI.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of 2014, “Youth (15–24 years old) are still at the highest risk of acquiring an STD, especially chlamydia and gonorrhea.”
The CDC estimates 1 in 20 sexually active young women aged 14–24 years has chlamydia.”

I recommend the following actions be immediately taken:

      DOE, DHMH and community-based health care providers partner to offer comprehensive screening and treatment to children who are experiencing mental and sexual health challenges. Services should focus initially on the over-aged middle school student population, members of which are twice as likely to be students with disabilities and English language learners.

      Permit the Office of School Health to offer screening for STIs to over-aged middle school students in schools. Do not allow local superintendents and principals to deny students access to screening and treatment.

      DOE, DHMH and community-based health care providers develop comprehensive health curricula to teach children about health, including sexual health.

      New York State Board of Regents change education regulations to require mandatory health education classes in grades 6 – 12. Current regulations only require one semester of health in middle school and one semester in high school.

I urge education and government officials to coordinate and collaborate with community-based health care providers to address the myriad health-related issues that contribute to grade retention and risky sexual behavior. Left unaddressed, these issues often lead to consequences such as unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and diseases, mental illness, drug addiction, middle school dropout, juvenile delinquency, and even death.