Facing Criticism, DOE Plans to Expand Sex Ed

(Photo by Mariel Lombard via El Diario)

Sonia Martínez has two teenage children, aged 15 and 17. Although she says that they are “good kids,” she is concerned about the “ignorant” and “confused” way they talk about sex. The Colombian mother blames schools in particular, saying that they do not address the topic in a straightforward and inclusive manner. She adds that, while youths are bombarded in the street with an erroneous culture about sexuality, the topic continues to be taboo in the classroom.

“I try to talk to them but, since I’m a woman, they often refuse to listen to me. And when I hear them talk with their friends, I am amazed at the nonsense they say,” said the single mother. “They speak in foul terms about girls, say homophobic comments about their fellow students and keep singing that reaggetón music that only says vulgar things about sex. I think they need to clarify many questions.”

Even though in 2011 the New York City Department of Education (DOE) ordered junior and high school curricula to cover specifics sex education topics – including sexually-transmitted diseases and pregnancy – City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said that implementation is seriously failing, as it does not constitute comprehensive education.

“Despite research linking sexual health education with better outcomes for students, it’s not being taught the way it should be in most city public schools,” said the councilwoman, pointing out that the curriculum leaves out important topics such as diversity and preventing and dealing with the trauma of sexual abuse, which should be included.

To address this issue, the City Council will announce a bill in the next few days that will create a task force to review the current study plan and the way it is being implemented, with the purpose of preventing sex education instruction in the Big Apple from being a halfhearted effort.

“This task force will consult with health experts, parents, and teachers to develop recommendations for improving and expanding how sex ed is taught in all New York City public schools,” said Mark-Viverito, adding that schools cannot stay in the times of “the birds and the bees.” “If we don’t provide our young people with the knowledge they need to make well-informed, healthy decisions about their bodies, we are not living up to our responsibilities as a city.”

LGBT inclusion

The bill aims to promote comprehensive sex education in all grades, also vindicating equality and respect for communities such as the LGBT.

“As we have seen, unity does not always guarantee equality. That’s why we must create open dialogues about race, gender and sexuality. So we will tackle these hard issues head-on by ensuring students have the knowledge they need to learn, and that educators have the tools they need to discuss diversity in the classroom,” added Mark-Viverito.

Dominican-born Councilman Ydanis Rodríguez voiced his support for the bill, adding that, if children are educated from an early age, there will be fewer unwanted children and better sexual health.

“All students in our city must get sex education in the classroom when they reach the appropriate age. This is basic knowledge that can provide safer, more mindful outcomes for our young New Yorkers, reducing the rates of sexually-transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy,” he said.

Christy Castaño, a Brooklyn kindergarten teacher, agrees that the sex education provided by schools is outdated, adding that it should be extended to parents.

“I believe that there should be a curriculum that accepts everyone and that discusses sexuality and other broad subjects from an early age, as small children have many questions and they explore their bodies. I see that many parents get alarmed because they do not have the necessary tools,” said the teacher.

Castaño added that the current curriculum has health classes that include sexuality, but they are taught in high school. “I think that, by the time they reach that age, it is too late, which is why it would be better to present it in an appropriate manner when they are younger, also addressing other topics such as abuse.”

DOE responds to criticism

Despite criticism coming from council members, parents and teachers (…), the city’s Department of Education defended its work.

“As part of the DOE’s commitment to provide each student with quality education, we require comprehensive health education, including topics such as sex education, in junior and high school. We provide students with accurate and age-appropriate lessons, which helps them develop the abilities and knowledge they need to make healthy and safe decisions,” said Toya Holness, spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

The government official said that guides are distributed in the city’s schools detailing the curriculum recommended by the DOE for middle and high schools, which cover a wide array of topics, including sexual health.

Also, in 2015, the city ordered schools to begin teaching a class on the use of condoms, which until then could only be done by school nurses and at the student’s request. However, if parents do not want their child to attend these classes, they can still say so.

Meanwhile, Roger Platt, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Assistant Commissioner for School Health – who works with a number of sex education school programs, including the School-Based Health Centers and C.A.T.C.H. – said that the intensive work his agency and the DOE are carrying out has yielded favorable results.

Between 2001 and 2014, pregnancy rates among teens in the city dropped 53 percent, in large part thanks to education and health programs offered in schools. In the case of Hispanics, the reduction during the same period was 35 percent.

“We are committed to providing youths in New York City with education and resources to help them make informed decisions regarding their sexual and reproductive health,” said the government official. “We will continue to work alongside the Department of Education to support evidence-based programming to give teenagers access to resources confidentially and in a friendly environment.”

In spite of the progress touted by the authorities, the Department of Health itself is alarmed that two-thirds of New Yorkers who have contracted sexually-transmitted diseases such as chlamydia and gonorrhea are teens and young adults. For this reason, it has called on minors who wish to learn their status regarding these diseases to attend one of 8 existing sexual health clinics throughout the city. The clinics allow youths over 12 to obtain services without their parents’ authorization, and guarantee confidentiality.

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