New York’s Universal Comprehensive Sex Ed Mandate: The Radical Notion Our Kids Might Learn Facts

For decades, students’ likelihood of receiving sex ed in NYC public schools has come down to the luck of the draw. New York City’s universal standard for sex education, announced in August, seeks to put an end to the loose patchwork of programs across the city. But the usual suspects are using fear-mongering and falsehoods to push their agenda of ignorance.

See our other reports on New York City’s sex ed program here.

Monica has it good. A junior at Bard High School Early College on the Lower East Side, she has a twice-weekly health class this semester that includes one unit each on sex education and on HIV and AIDS. Two-hundred blocks north at Aerospace High School in the Bronx, eighteen-year-old Tamara has never been taught sex education, and it doesn’t appear on the syllabus for this semester’s health class. Somewhere in between, metaphorically anyway, eighteen-year-old Brandon at New Design High School has the option of choosing sex education as a one-week elective, alongside other options like sports, LGBTQ Alliance, and poetry. “It’s a shame you have to pick it,” Brandon said, because so many students don’t.

New York City’s universal standard for sex education, announced by schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott in a letter to middle school and high school principals on August 9, 2011, seeks to put an end to this loose patchwork of sex ed programs across the city. For decades, students’ likelihood of receiving sex ed has come down to the luck of the draw, depending on whether principals have considered it a priority, teachers have the training to teach it, or parents are informed enough to demand it.

The new policy will ensure that middle schools and high schools teach at least one semester each of sex ed, beginning in the Spring semester of 2012. The Department of Education is encouraging schools to use two vetted, evidence-based, age-appropriate, comprehensive sex ed curricula: HealthSmart and Reducing the Risk. They are providing the curricula for free, and offering training and technical assistance to schools on the implementation process.

Those of us who care about and have been working for years to improve the health of our youth couldn’t be more excited. But as with any attempt to keep our youth healthy and safe by ensuring their access to comprehensive sex ed, a few detractors are raising their voices in opposition. Most notably, the Catholic Archdiocese has rejected the universal standard, and the vehemently anti-choice Chiaroscuro Foundation has rallied to promote abstinence-only education instead. Last week, an op-ed ran in The New York Times claiming that sex ed will usurp parents’ rights to educate their children as they see fit. And on Monday, New York Congress members Bob Turner and Michael Grimm led an anti-sex education rally outside a Brooklyn public school.

In response to these few but vociferous critics, I want to set the record straight.

First, opponents claim that the decision to set these standards was a sudden one, made solely by school administrators without input from a broad spectrum of constituents across the five boroughs.

In reality, it has been years in the making.

New York State has required general health education for all public schools since 1967, and HIV and AIDS education since 1987, but sex education was not required and was by no means universal. In fact, as of 2004, 75 percent of New York City schools failed to even meet state requirements for basic health education.

The city began to ramp up its commitment to sex education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In 2007, based on advisory board recommendations, the DOE began recommending the HealthSmart curriculum, supplemented by the Reducing the Risk curriculum for high schools. Both curricula were made available to schools for free, but without a mandate, fewer than half of all schools offered some form of sex ed. Currently, 43 percent of high schools report having used the high school version of HealthSmart and 38 percent report using Reducing the Risk. Sixty-four percent of middle schools report using HealthSmart.

The DOE first tested the waters for implementing a universal standard by piloting a program of evidence-based sex education in ten South Bronx middle and high schools in 2007-2008, using HealthSmart and Reducing the Risk. The South Bronx was chosen for its high rates of teen sexual activity and teen pregnancy. At the end of the school year, seven of the 10 schools successfully implemented the program. Findings showed that students entering the classroom lacked a basic understanding of reproductive anatomy, but were eager to receive that knowledge. The program was wildly popular, garnering support from students, parents, teachers, and principals. All principals involved said they would use the curricula again, with one reporting, “Sex ed is needed throughout the city – not just in the South Bronx. It should be mandatory.”

Our thoughts exactly.

Second, let me be clear that opponents to sex education represent not the concerns of actual parents of public school students, but first and foremost their own conservative agenda to shame and stigmatize sexual activity and push dangerous, useless abstinence-only education. The chief group opposed to the New York City mandate, the NYC Parents Choice Coalition, is a project of the anti-choice Chiaroscuro Foundation – a conservative anti-choice organization that describes itself as a grant-making organization that funds anti-choice initiatives, religious liberty, Christian evangelization and Catholic formation, and humanitarian efforts.

In reality, the vast majority of New York City parents support their children learning comprehensive sex education in school. When the new standard was piloted in the South Bronx in 2007-2008, parents overwhelmingly supported the new program. Only a few parents (zero to three per school) opted their children out for religious reasons, as was – and should be – their right. Similarly, the city-wide mandate has a provision allowing those few parents who do not want their children to learn about prevention and birth control to opt their children out of those lessons.

But more than merely supporting sex education, parents tend to have a widespread expectation that schools have a responsibility to teach the vital, potentially life-saving information that students need to stay healthy and safe. A 2009 poll showed that 85 percent of New York State voters supported comprehensive sex education, and 77 percent of voters mistakenly assumed that it was already being taught.

Third, opponents of comprehensive sex education would have us think that providing comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education is somehow a radical idea. A consistent pattern of fear-mongering has arisen, complete with unfounded and disproven claims that the recommended curricula will increase teen sexual activity. The anti-sex ed crowd repeatedly trots out red herrings in the curricula that obfuscate the truly comprehensive nature of the recommended curricula.

In reality, HealthSmart is medically accurate and abstinence-based, containing materials such as a worksheet students should complete with a parent about how to abstain from sex. And Reducing the Risk has been found to increase parent-child communication about abstinence and contraception, delay initiation of intercourse; and both reduce the incidence of unprotected sex while increasing use of contraception.

Where opponents of sex education see a radical idea, the rest of us see common sense. In 2009, 35 percent of female high school students and 45 percent of male high school students report having had sex. Teens currently make up more than one in four diagnosed STI cases in New York City. Over the past decade, New York City’s teen pregnancy rate has consistently exceeded the national rate, and in 2005 it was 21 percent higher than the national rate. Teens in under-resourced neighborhoods are three times more likely to become pregnant than teens in more affluent neighborhoods. The disparity in access to sex education has been yet another of the disparities plaguing New York City teens, leading to large gaping inequalities in reproductive health outcomes. And, as if that weren’t enough, parenthood significantly increases the dropout rates for teen mothers and teen fathers – about 51 percent of teen moms have a high school diploma, and the graduation rate for teen fathers is around 64 percent.

Universal, comprehensive sex education is not a radical notion. But for students who have not yet received that knowledge, it just might make a radical difference.

As the largest public school district in the country, serving 1.1 million students, New York City’s universal standard should serve as a catalyst for other localities interested in moving forward with a sex ed policy. First and foremost, it levels the playing field for students in the city by ensuring they have equal access to quality sex education across the board. In modeling not only good policy, but also solid implementation guidelines, this move has the potential to reach beyond New York City to inspire other large school districts, localities or even states to implement similar initiatives. With the New York City universal standard for sex education, we just might be one step closer to ensuring that access to sex education is not an accident of geography.