03 June 2010

New York City Moves One Step Closer to Mandating Comprehensive Sex-Ed

Imagine that all children in New York City public schools were offered a curriculum in comprehensive sexuality education. That students were taught about birth control, the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and were encouraged to make responsible decisions about their sexuality. Sounds pretty idyllic, doesn't it?

Well, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union this utopian world may be on its way to becoming a reality. The New York City Department of Education recently applied for a $20 million federal grant from the Office of Adolescent Health to support the introduction of a comprehensive age-appropriate sexuality education curriculum in New York City public schools (award decisions are expected in September 2010).

For years, advocates like Ms. Foundation grantees the HIV Law Project and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), have fought to put evidence-based curricula in schools -- and it looks like their hard work has finally paid off. Just last week these two organizations and long list of other advocates (including the New York Civil Liberties Union) sent a letter [pdf] to Joel Klein, the Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, urging him to implement comprehensive age-appropriate sexuality education in all New York City middle and high schools by the 2010-11 school year. "Only by implementing such a requirement will we be able to guarantee that students are provided with the information they need to embark on a lifetime of healthy choices about sex and sexuality," their letter stated.

The addition of comprehensive sexuality education is especially crucial in New York City, where, at present, state curriculum does not require the teaching of any sex ed in public schools, and only briefly mentions general health education and HIV-AIDS prevention. The status quo has long been detrimental to the sexual health of the city's youth. According to the letter to Klein, "41% of New York City youth reported becoming sexually active by 9th grade," while one in four teenage women had acquired a sexually transmitted disease (an especially frightening statistic when you factor in that New York City has the highest HIV-AIDS infection rate in the country).

It's clear that the current state of affairs should not and cannot be maintained -- and the grant application is a real indication that the DOE understands this to be true. The city was spurred to apply for the grant partly as a result of an incredibly successful pilot project that ran in seven schools located in the South Bronx during the 2007-2008 school year. The pilot project showed that the NYC school system is ready for sexual health education reform; it used a DOE-approved comprehensive sexuality curriculum, was widely supported by teachers, principals, administrators and parents, and, most importantly, demonstrated a significant learning curve for students. According to the evaluation report [pdf], co-authored by the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene:
  • Students were highly engaged in the program;
  • Very few parents chose to opt their children out of it;
  • All of the teachers who completed the program reported that providing sex education in school is important and several said it should be mandatory;
  • All of the principals who participated in a final focus group said they would use the curricula again and recommend them to other principals.
This pilot project has set the stage for an expansion of these programs city-wide, and underscored what advocates and community-based organizations have long known: that evidence-based, age-appropriate sexuality education is necessary and effective. It is the only way to ensure sexual health and prepare our youth to make responsible choices. With the help of these federal funds -- should they be forthcoming -- the city has the potential to step forward and become a model for comprehensive sexuality education across the state. Let's hope the feds see fit to make that happen.

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