For the first time in nearly 20 years, New York City's public middle and high schools will be required to teach students about sex.
In an email to principals last night, Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott said mandatory sex education will start in the second semester of the 2011-2012 school year. The curriculum will be flexible but will include lessons on how to use condoms, how to avoid unwanted sexual encounters and how to respect relationship partners.
"We have students who are having sex before the age of 13; students who have had multiple sexual partners; and students who aren't protecting themselves against sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS," wrote Walcott. "I believe the school system has an important role to play with regard to educating our children about sex and the potential consequences of engaging in risky behavior."
The mandate applies strictly to the New York City public school system. New York State currently requires one semester of health education in both middle and high school, but does not mandate sex education. Only 20 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, according to a recent report by the Guttmacher Institute, which studies sexual health.
"Most states are similar to New York in that they mandate HIV education but not sex education," said Elizabeth Nash, public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute. "What we know about well implemented, comprehensive sexual education programs is that they can delay the onset of sex, reduce the number of sexual partners and increase contraception use -- all of which points to [having] sex when you're ready and in an appropriate way."
Len Saunders, who grew up in the New York City public school system and now teaches in it, said sex education is an important part of becoming an adult.
"I do think it's important for kids to know what happens, because sometimes they do find out the wrong way and you don't want that," said Saunders, a father of two anda physical education and health teacher in uptown Manhattan. "It's better to learn from a teacher you trust or a parent."
Saunders said he has fond memories of his sexual education in the late 1970s.
"It was kind of fun to sit in a class that was more, from our point of view at that age, entertaining," he said. "Although I'm not sure I learned anything new at the time."
Now Saunders teaches his male students about sex, while a nurse teaches the female students.
"They sometimes get the giggles," he said. "And you can definitely see which kids have older brothers or older sisters and have heard the stuff before."
New York City schools previously taught students about sex but focused on HIV prevention. But a condom distribution program launched in 1991 drew a lawsuit from parents displeased with their kids having access to condoms without parental consent. And a draft version of a proposed rule to emphasize safe sex over abstinence prompted more legal woes, ultimately causing the school board to drop the sex education mandate until now.
"Just as there are some parents who don't want sex education in schools, there are some who do," said Saunders. "I think sometimes things come full circle because people realize they shouldn't have been taken away in the first place."
The Return of Sex Education: An Evidence-Based Approach
Schools will have the choice of when and how to incorporate sex education into their current health curriculum. Walcott strongly recommended, however, that it take place in sixth or seventh grade, in middle school, and in the ninth or tenth grade, in high school. He also recommended two commercially available programs -- HealthSmart and Reducing the Risk.
"The programs that are effective, and involve some lecturing by teachers and a variety of interactive activities, like small group or class discussions and role playing to help young people practice saying no to unwanted sex," said Doug Kirby, senior research scientist at ETR Associates, a nonprofit organization that develops health education programs that include HealthSmart and Reducing the Risk.
Kirby said the curriculums are age-appropriate, meaning the focus for younger students is on abstinence, shifting more toward condom and contraception use for high school students. And contrary to the notion that sex education will rush kids into having sex, Kirby said four separate studies found that Reduce the Risk delayed the initiation of sex.
"We have very strong evidence that many sex education programs can actually have a positive impact on sexual behavior, and they do not do any harm -- they do not increase sexual activity," he said. "They can reduce risky behavior. And if we can do that, we will end up reducing unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases."
Walcott emphasized that parents will have the opportunity to hold kids back from specific lessons on birth control for religious or cultural reasons.
"I have always believed that parents should have the right to opt out of certain sex education lessons such as conversations on prevention and birth control, as they will in this case," he wrote. "But I also feel we have a responsibility to offer our students access to information that will keep them safe and healthy."