According to a recently released report by the National Center for Health Statistics, the overall rate of teen pregnancy in the U.S. is on the decline. The report’s authors state that the U.S. birth rate for teens aged 15-19 declined 45 percent to 34.2 births per 1,000 teen girls in 2010. This is down from its two decade high in 1991 of 61.8 births per 1,000 teen girls aged 15-19.

As the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy observes: “While the overall trend is encouraging, the U.S. teen birth rate remains notably higher than the rates in other industrialized countries.”

There’s also another notable disparity in teen pregnancy rates: urban versus rural. As the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy goes on to clarify: “In 2010, the teen birth rate in rural counties was nearly one-third higher compared to the rest of the country (43 per 1,000 girls age 15 to 19 vs. 33)… the teen birth rate in rural counties surpassed that in suburban counties and even in major urban centers… the (rural) teen birth rate was higher regardless of race/age.”

As a largely rural state, Arkansas’ statistics with regard to teen pregnancy and sexual behavior are significantly higher — and more troubling — than national averages. According to the Guttmacher Institute: “In 2008 and 2010, teenage birth rates were highest in Mississippi (55 per 1,000 in 2010), New Mexico, Arkansas and Texas.”

A few grim stats make the point. The 2008 teen pregnancy rate among girls age 15-19 in Arkansas was 82 per 1,000. Nationally it was 68 per 1,000. While the national teen birth rate in girls 15-19 went down 45 percent between 1991-2010, in Arkansas it only decreased by 34 percent. To look at the probably from a broader community health perspective, the taxpayer burden associated with teen childbearing in 2008 was $10.9 billion — $143 million of which stems from Arkansans.

When we turn our attention from pregnancy and childbirth to sexual experience, the statistics are just as chilling. The national percentage of high school students who report ever having had sex is 47.4. The percentage for Arkansas high school students is 50.3. Black high school students are almost twice as likely to report having had sex than whites.

Nationally the percentage of high school students who report having first had sex before age 13 is 6.2. In Arkansas the figure is 8.4 percent. This statistic is particularly troubling. It makes the phrase “babies having babies” all-too-real.

The disparity between races is even more marked for this category. Nationally, 3.9 percent of white high school students reported having had first sex before age 13. In Arkansas 5.6 percent of white students reported this behavior.

The percentage for black students both nationally and in Arkansas are around three times that of whites. Nationally, 13.9 percent of black high school students report having had sex before age 13, whereas, in Arkansas 17.2 percent of black students report this same behavior.

Lastly, the proportion of high school students who reported having had four or more lifetime sexual partners is 15.3 percent nationally and 19.5 percent in Arkansas. The disparities between blacks and whites in this category mirror the others.

If you’re a parent of a high school student, this information likely has you rummaging around for some chain and a padlock. That’s wholly understandable. What it should motivate, however, is several long, frank and honest discussions. The trouble Arkansas experiences in these matters is significantly higher here in Jefferson County. If we want to change our collective futures for the better, this topic is a good place to start.