New York City Will Mandate Sex Education
By FERNANDA SANTOS and ANNA M. PHILLIPS
Published: August 9, 2011, The New York Times
For the first time in nearly two decades, students in New York City’s public middle and high schools will be required to take sex-education classes beginning this school year, using a curriculum that includes lessons on how to use a condom and the appropriate age for sexual activity.
The new mandate is part of a broader strategy the Bloomberg administration announced last week to improve the lives of black and Latino teenagers. According to city statistics, those teenagers are far more likely than their white counterparts to have unplanned pregnancies and contract sexually transmitted diseases.
“It’s obviously something that applies to all boys and all girls,” said Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services. “But when we look at the biggest disadvantages that kids in our city face, it is blacks and Latinos that are most affected by the consequences of early sexual behavior and unprotected sex.”
The change will bring a measure of cohesion to a patchwork system of programs largely chosen by school principals.
It will also bring to New York the roiling national debate about what, exactly, schools should teach students about sex.
Nationwide, one in four teenagers between 2006 and 2008 learned about abstinence without receiving any instruction in schools about contraceptive methods, according to an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health. As of January, 20 states and the District of Columbia mandated sex and H.I.V. education in schools. An additional 12 states, New York included, required H.I.V. education only, according to a policy paper published by the institute.
New York City’s new mandate goes beyond the state’s requirement that middle and high school students take one semester of health education classes. The city’s mandate calls for schools to teach a semester of sex education in 6th or 7th grade, and again in 9th or 10th grade, suggesting they use HealthSmart and Reducing the Risk, out-of-the-box sets of lessons that have been recommended since 2007. A city survey of principals last year found that 64 percent of middle schools were using the HealthSmart curriculum.
For the Bloomberg administration, which last week announced a three-year, $130 million initiative to improve the lives of young minority men in the city, the sex-education mandate joins a number of other public health efforts — like the mayor’s push to reduce residents’ intake of salt and sugary sodas — that have sometimes been criticized as interventionist. It is also unusual because the city does not often tell schools what to teach.
“We have a responsibility to provide a variety of options to support our students, and sex education is one of them,” the chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, said in an interview on Monday.
Parents will be able to have their children opt out of the lessons on birth-control methods. City officials said that while there would be frank discussions with students as young as 11 on topics like anatomy, puberty, pregnancy and the risks of unprotected sex, the focus was to get students to wait until they were older to experiment. At the same time, knowing that many teenagers are sexually active, the administration wants to teach them about safe sex in the hopes of reducing pregnancy, disease and dropouts.
Some are already preparing for a backlash.
“We’re going to have to be the bridge between the chancellor’s requirements and the community,” said Casimiro Cibelli, principal of Middle School 142 in the Baychester section of the Bronx, where many of the students come from immigrant, religious families with traditional views on sex. “Hopefully, we’ll allay their concerns because of their trust in us.”
At Mr. Cibelli’s school, the current semester-long health course does not stray from subjects like nutrition and physical fitness.
The new classes, which will be coeducational, could be incorporated into existing health education classes, so principals will not have to scramble to find additional instructional time. The classes would include a mix of lectures, perhaps using statistics to show that while middle school students might brag about having sex, not many of them actually do; group discussions about, for example, why teenagers are often resistant to condoms; and role-playing exercises that might include techniques to fend off unwanted advances.
Schools that have not been offering sex education — the number is unclear because the city’s Department of Education has not kept a tally, a spokeswoman said — can hire a teacher to do it or assign the task to one who is already on the staff. The department will offer training sessions before the start of classes Sept. 8.
Some New Yorkers of older generations remember explicit sex-education classes with frank talk about libido and demonstrations of how to use a diaphragm.
In 1987, the state mandated the adoption of an H.I.V./AIDS curriculum in every school. For students in the city, that has meant at least five class sessions each year, from kindergarten through 12th grade. In those classes, younger students are taught to avoid touching open wounds, and older ones are talked to about sex, but not necessarily about preventing pregnancies.
Opposition from religious groups and school board members eventually defeated a city mandate approved in the 1980s for a sex-education curriculum. But a survey by NARAL Pro-Choice New York in 2009 found that 81 percent of city voters thought sex education should be taught in public schools.
High schools in New York have been distributing condoms for more than 20 years. In the new sex-education classes, teachers will describe how to use them, and why, going where some schools have never gone before. To others, though, the topic will be familiar territory.
At John Dewey High School in Gravesend, Brooklyn, 10th graders already take a nine-week course called Human Sexuality, which the school’s health teachers designed some years ago and which covers many of the same topics that the city will require.
Some schools have relied on nonprofit or community groups like Planned Parenthood and the Door to teach their sex-education classes, an arrangement that is likely to continue once the new policy takes effect.
Mary Cheng, a health teacher at Murry Bergtraum High School in Lower Manhattan, said she devoted two months of students’ required five-month health class to sex education, combining lessons from the recommended high school curriculum with materials of her own. Ultimately, it will be up to schools to design the lessons; they will have until the beginning of the second semester to begin the classes.
“We will work with our schools and school communities to ensure they are prepared,” Mr. Walcott said.