GMHC Hosts Panel on Inclusive Sex Education Programs
With a new mandate from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Department of Education, all public middle and high school students are now required to take sex education classes. Although there is no mandatory curriculum, principals must work with their health teachers to roll out a sex ed course by the end of this semester that is designed to delay the age that kids engage in sex-practice safer sex when they do.
In an effort to bring more attention to this mandate, Gay Men’s Health Crisis on Jan. 31 held a forum titled "Schooling Sex: A Community Discussion On Sex Education In The NYC School System." Tracie Gardner of the Women’s Initiative to Stop HIV/AIDS of New York moderated the panel that featured Mark Ossenheimer, principal of the Bronx Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation; Monica Rodriguez, president of Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States and GMHC volunteer Louie Garay, Jr.
City Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) came out on the front page of Newsday in 1992 because he attempted to teach an inclusive curriculum in the Queens school in which he was teaching. "It created an uproar; the chancellor was fired, and GMHC was forbidden in the schools," noted Dromm. "Their approach to AIDS in those days was to have a special teacher come in, who taught only that HIV was passed blood to blood, and didn’t mention anything about sex. I tell us this bit of history because although we’ve come a long way, District 24 is rejecting the Chancellor’s [Dennis M. Walcott] curriculum again. People want their kids to be educated, but then there are the politics of the school board."
Prompted by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics that indicate nearly half of the 19 million new sexually transmitted diseases each year are among people aged 15-24 years, Dromm said participants should share the information from the forum with other city leaders and urge them to take a more realistic approach to young people having sex.
Rodriguez said that SIECUS tries to affirm sexuality as a natural, healthy part of living. She hopes city school principals will choose a curriculum that approached adolescent sexuality from a wider perspective than just safer sex.
"Schools are struggling on how to deal with it...and we have really painted ourselves into a corner, because these programs are very narrowly focused on HIV/STIs and pregnancy," said Rodriguez. "There are also ideological and fiscal challenges; Congress just took out $10 million from CDC to teach youth HIV education in schools, and put money back in for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs."
The good news, she said, is that state health departments have received federal funds for evidence-based initiatives. These include Mississippi’s Personal Responsibility Education Program.
Ossenheimer, whose middle and high school opened in the country’s poorest Congressional district in 2007, has invited Planned Parenthood and the Peter Health Exchange to bring age-appropriate safer-sex services to his students.
"We’re in the game to change the game," he said. "We have to break the cycles."
While Ossenheimer championed Walcott’s mandate; he bemoaned the fact that there was no specific curriculum, no checks and balances for assessing the efficacy of the implemented programs and a lack of money and time to implement them.
For example, principals are responsible for selecting an appropriate curriculum, and then paying for it and the related training. Huge variances exist between schools and even teachers. And actual discussions of same-sex sex education are extremely limited.
In addition, the mandated health classes where sex ed is taught consists of one semester of health class for sixth through eighth graders, and one semester for high school students.
Still, Ossenheimer said that the programs are welcomed in his school. Although parents are allowed an opt-out for their children, only four of 220 students opted out of this year’s middle school sex ed curriculum.
Students Want to Know More About Sex
Garay, a recent graduate from the Brooklyn School of Global Studies, said students want to know more about sex. He transferred to a public school from a private Catholic school during the second half of ninth grade after he came out as gay and was ostracized.
Garay said that while his mother was supportive and talked with him about his sexuality, he wanted to spread knowledge about HIV and STIs to his schoolmates. He started a gay-straight alliance, and forced his school to discuss HIV education.
He created a space for gay and questioning students, and increased parent and teacher education by bringing in guest speakers. Garay also solicited information from students on what they wanted to know.
"I created a space where the conversation became more comfortable," he said. "Students are engaging in these activities, and it is important to have the education in place. I made it a point to have education, condoms, and literature available at my school."
Rodriguez said it is exactly these types of student-lead, proactive education efforts that are at the forefront of changing views around sex ed.
Solomon Israel, a member of GMHC’s social fraternity OBB, stopped by the forum to learn about plans to teach young people about safer sex and HIV. He shared a story about an 11-year-old girl who had found out that she was pregnant.
"When we had sex ed, all they talked about were ways to prevent pregnancy; there was nothing about preventing HIV or STDs, and no mention about being gay," said Israel.
His friend, Keron Brown, expressed frustration that his efforts to educate his classmates about HIV at CUNY-Queensborough Community College were shut down.
"Kids are having sex younger than ever, and they need to learn about it--and not on the streets," said Brown.
"When things I tried to implement were shut down at one level, I pushed it to the next one," added Garay, who encouraged Brown to keep pushing for HIV education.
Rodriguez agreed, adding comprehensive sex ed programs should also teach young people how to make good decisions. She stressed these curricula should also instruct students about how to bring their questions to adults and what a healthy relationship looks like.
"We need to get school administrators to realize that this is a reality; its not just a few 13-year-olds having sex, it’s thousands," noted Garay.