Young people account for 40 percent
of new HIV infections around the world, yet most of the policy surrounding
prevention of the disease ignores youth (ages 15-24). Building on their
previous success, the Mexico 2008 YouthForce decided to continue this
dialogue with a commitments desk.
Some commitments to date include
pledges to make youth sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)
services more youth-friendly; to create leadership positions for young
people, and to start an SRHR campaign for young women.
On Monday morning, the Mayor
of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard Casaubón, stopped by. We were also excited
when Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, visited
the Youth Pavilion to address young people on his work with HIV/AIDS.
He spoke briefly to a strictly screened audience (no one over 29 years
old). He emphasized the problems of stigma and discrimination towards
people living with HIV and AIDS, but failed to take advantage of the
opportunity to make a commitment to youth.
As a member of YouthForce,
I was disappointed that Ban Ki-Moon did not provide us with the respect
of acknowledging our rights. Furthermore, he failed to make a
pledge at the commitments desk. The commitments desk was created to
help decision-makers commit to youth. Why is it so difficult for
many leaders do so?
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Though the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act has little chance of passing Congress, its inclusive and evidence-based approach is a much-needed antidote to years of publicly funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which may have contributed to troubling declines in youth knowledge about sexual and reproductive health.
Recent research from the Guttmacher Institute finds there have been significant changes in sexuality education during the last decade—and not for the better.
Fewer young people are receiving “formal sex education,” meaning classes that take place in schools, youth centers, churches, or community settings. And parents are not necessarily picking up the slack. This does not surprise sexuality education advocates, who say shrinking resources and restrictive public policies have pushed comprehensive programs—ones that address sexual health and contraception, among other topics—out of the classroom, while continued funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs has allowed uninformative ones to remain.
But just a week before this research was released in April, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (REHYA). If passed, REHYA would allocate federalfunding for accurate, unbiased sexuality education programs that meet strict content requirements. More importantly, it would lay out a vision of what sexuality education could and should be.
Can this act ensure that more young people get high-quality sexuality education?
In the short term: No. Based on the track record of our current Congress, it has little chance of passing. But in the long run, absolutely.
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Less Sexuality Education Today The Guttmacher Institute’s new study compared data from two rounds of a national survey in the years 2006-2010 and 2011-2013. It found that even the least controversial topics in sex education—sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV and AIDS—are taught less today than a few years ago. The proportion of young women taught about STDs declined from 94 percent to 90 percent between the two time periods, and young women taught about HIV and AIDS declined from 89 percent to 86 percent during the same period.
While it may seem like a lot of young people are still learning about these potential consequences of unprotected sex, few are learning how to prevent them. In the 2011-2013 survey, only 50 percent of teen girls and 58 percent of teen boys had received formal instruction about how to use a condom before they turned 18. And the percentage of teens who reported receiving formal education about birth control in general decreased from 70 percent to 60 percent among girls and from 61 percent to 55 percent among boys.
One of the only things that did increase was the percentage of teen girls (from 22 percent to 28 percent) and boys (from 29 to 35 percent) who said they got instruction on “how to say no to sex”—but no corresponding instruction on birth control.
Unfortunately, many parents do not appear to be stepping in to fill the gap left by formal education. The study found that while there’s been a decline in formal education, there has been little change in the number of kids who say they’ve spoken to their parents about birth control.
Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, told Rewire that this can lead to a dangerous situation: “In the face of declining formal education and little discussion from their parents, young people are left to fend for themselves, often turning to their friends or the internet-either of which can be fraught with trouble.”
The study makes it very clear that we are leaving young people unprepared to make responsible decisions about sex. When they do receive education, it isn’t always timely: It found that in 2011-2013, 43 percent of teen females and 57 percent of teen males did not receive information about birth control before they had sex for the first time.
It could be tempting to argue that the situation is not actually dire because teen pregnancy rates are at a historic low, potentially suggesting that young people can make do without formal sex education or even parental advice. Such an argument would be a mistake. Teen pregnancy rates are dropping for a variety of reasons, but mostly because because teens are using contraception more frequently and more effectively. And while that is great news, it is insufficient.
Our goals in providing sex education have to go farther than getting young people to their 18th or 21st birthday without a pregnancy. We should be working to ensure that young people grow up to be sexually healthy adults who have safe and satisfying relationships for their whole lives.
But for anyone who needs an alarming statistic to prove that comprehensive sex education is still necessary, here’s one: Adolescents make up just one quarter of the population, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate they account for more than half of the 20 million new sexually transmittedinfections (STIs) that occur each year in this country.
The Real Education for Healthy Youth Act The best news about the REHYA is that it takes a very broad approach to sexuality education, provides a noble vision of what young people should learn, and seems to understand that changes should take place not just in K-12 education but through professional development opportunities as well.
As Advocates for Youth explains, if passed, REHYA would be the first federal legislation to ever recognize young people’s right to sexual health information. It would allocate funding for education that includes a wide range of topics, including communication and decision-making skills; safe and healthy relationships; and preventing unintended pregnancy, HIV, other STIs, dating violence, sexual assault, bullying, and harassment.
In addition, it would require all funded programs to be inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students and to meet the needs of young people who are sexually active as well as those who are not. The grants could also be used for adolescents and young adults in institutes of higher education. Finally, the bill recognizes the importance of teacher training and provides resources to prepare sex education instructors.
If we look at the federal government’s role as leading by example, then REHYA is a great start. It sets forth a plan, starts a conversation, and moves us away from decades of focusing on disproven abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. In fact, one of the fun parts of this new bill is that it diverts funding from the Title V program, which received $75 million dollars in Fiscal Year 2016. That funding has supported programs that stick to a strict eight-point definition of “abstinence education” (often called the “A-H definition”) that, among other things, tells young people that sex outside of marriage is against societal norms and likely to have harmful physical and psychological effects.
The federal government does not make rules on what can and cannot be taught in classrooms outside of those programs it funds. Broad decisions about topics are made by each state, while more granular decisions—such as what curriculum to use or videos to show—are made by local school districts. But the growth of the abstinence-only-until-marriage approach and the industry that spread it, researchers say, was partially due to federal funding and the government’s “stamp of approval.”
Heather Boonstra, director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute and a co-author of its study, told Rewire: “My sense is that [government endorsement] really spurred the proliferation of a whole industry and gave legitimacy—and still does—to this very narrow approach.”
The money—$1.5 billion total between 1996 and 2010—was, of course, at the heart of a lot of that growth. School districts, community-based organizations, and faith-based institutions created programs using federal and state money. And a network of abstinence-only-until-marriage organizations grew up to provide the curricula and materials these programs needed. But the reach was broader than that: A number of states changed the rules governing sex education to insist that schools stress abstinence. Some even quoted all or part of the A-H definition in their state laws.
REHYA would provide less money to comprehensive education than the abstinence-only-until-marriage funding streams did to their respective programs, but most advocates agree that it is important nonetheless. As Jesseca Boyer, vice president at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), told Rewire, “It establishes a vision of what the government could do in terms of supporting sex education.”
Boonstra noted that by providing the model for good programs and some money that would help organizations develop materials for those programs, REHYA could have a broader reach than just the programs it would directly fund.
The advocates Rewire spoke with agree on something else, as well: REHYA has very little chance of passing in this Congress. But they’re not deterred. Even if it doesn’t become law this year, or next, it is moving the pendulum back toward the comprehensive approach to sex education that our young people need.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify Jesseca Boyer’s position at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
Last Wednesday, midway through a private fundraiser in South Carolina for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, a 23-year-old Black Lives Matter activist quietly made her way to the front of the crowd and unfurled a banner that read: “We have to bring them to heel.”
In the exchange that followed, captured on video, Ashley Williams asked Clinton to apologize to the Black community for a speech she made in 1996 celebrating a sweeping new crime bill, during which she referred to “gangs of kids” as “super predators: no conscience, no empathy.”
“We can talk about why they ended up that way,” Clinton continued in the speech, “but first we have to bring them to heel.”
The video made national headlines, and is amplifying a conversation among voters about Clinton’s role in the expansion of racial profiling and mass incarceration in the United States, and her ability—if elected—to deal with the school-to-prison pipeline. (The school-to-prison pipeline is shorthand for the disproportionate rate at which students of color are policed, punished, and funneled out of their classrooms into contact with the criminal justice system.)
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The conversation gained steam in February when Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, penned a piece in the Nation titled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote.” In her essay, Alexander explored the ways in which then-President Bill Clinton championed a federal “three strikes” law to impose life sentences without parole for offenders convicted of certain crimes, and signed a $30 billion crime bill that created scores of new federal capital crimes and significantly expanded the police force—policies for which Alexander claims Hillary Clinton actively advocated.
While Clinton’s 1996 speech, referenced by Williams in South Carolina, did not explicitly refer to these “super predators” as young people of color, her statement is widely perceived as a highly racialized one, given the disproportionate impact of the Clinton administration’s policies on Black and brown youth.
Clinton acknowledged on Thursday in a statement to the Washington Post, “Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.”
Her statement came more than a week after unveiling her $125 billion Breaking Every Barrier Agenda that promises, among other things, to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.
Her proposal includes an allocation of $2 billion to school districts to incentivize reform of harsh disciplinary practices, which have been followed by soaring suspension and arrest rates: School suspensions shot up from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million in 2000, “and have been most dramatic for children of color,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Clinton’s proposal also calls attention to an “ineffective culture of zero-tolerance,” and highlights the over-reliance on “school resource officers”—police personnel deployed in schools who numbered 9,000 as of 2008—as being emblematic of “overly punitive atmospheres that often disproportionately criminalize and stigmatize students of color, students with disabilities, and students who identify as LGBT.”
The agenda also hits out at legislation that allows some states to punish even minor disciplinary infractions—including talking in class or playing on a cellphone—with jail time, such as South Carolina’s Disturbing Schools Law, which resulted in over 1,100 students being referred to the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice for “disturbing their schools” in 2013-2014.
Citing data from the Department of Education, Clinton’s website notes that these laws disproportionately affect students of color, with Black students comprising 27 percent of all referrals to law enforcement and 31 percent of students subject to school-related arrests in 2014—despite representing just 16 percent of public school enrollment.
“I think this proposal is Clinton’s attempt to be responsive to the demands of movement advocates and activists across the country who’ve been pressing both candidates on the Democratic side to respond to racial inequality, mass incarceration, and police violence,” Priscilla Ocen, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, told Rewire.
“I don’t think it’s accidental that the plan was announced just a few days before [the Democratic primary in] South Carolina—it gives her something to talk to African-American voters about, and it is certainly pragmatic election campaigning,” Ocen said in a phone interview last Thursday. This pragmatic campaigning paid off last Saturday with Clinton’s resounding success in South Carolina, where she secured 86 percent of Black votes, compared to just 14 percent for Bernie Sanders.
Still, some juvenile justice experts and educators feel Clinton’s agendafalls short, landing somewhere along the spectrum from “incomplete” to “disingenuous.”
“I can’t help but feel that if this was genuinely something at the top of Clinton’s agenda, she would have done something about it when she was First Lady … Instead she simply followed the same ‘tough on crime’ line as so many other politicians,” Cynthia Pong, a former public defender with the Legal Aid Society in the Bronx, and now a consultant for nonprofit social justice organizations at Embrace Change Consulting, told Rewire in a phone interview.
“Throughout the decade of the ’90s and beyond, [Hillary Clinton] and her husband played a huge role in upholding and expanding systematic mass incarceration of people of color in this country. In 1994 she was using some of the most disgusting racist rhetoric about young men of color I have ever heard. After all that, for her now to be saying she is committed to dismantling mass incarceration is disingenuous and even a little suspicious,” said Pong, who has defended clients at various stages of entanglement in the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Accepting money from entities that profit from locking people up, while saying you’re going to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, sends a completely inconsistent message,” Pong said.
Mishi Faruqee, national field director of the Youth First Initiative, shares a similar sentiment.
“I think it’s very important that the Clinton campaign completely repudiate all donations from lobbyists for the private prison industry, just as the [Bernie] Sanders campaign has done,” Faruqee told Rewire.
Faruqee also said she wants to see and hear more about how candidates intend to address the sprawling juvenile justice system, which incarcerates an estimated 54,000 young people on any given day, according to Youth First. As Rewire has previously reported, youth of color are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system, with Black kids experiencing a youth incarceration rate of 605 per 100,000 population, five times higher than the youth incarceration rate of their white peers, which is just 127 per 100,000. In 2013, Black children comprised 21,550 of an estimated 54,148 kids locked up in juvenile detention.
Last Thursday, nine national juvenile justice organizations distributed a letter to all presidential candidates, outlining their shared vision for an overhaul of the juvenile justice system. At publication time, none of the campaigns had responded to the letter, but Faruqee said she hopes Clinton’s agenda will begin to reflect some of the recommendations contained in the joint platform such as closing youth prisons, and reallocating funds towards community-based, family-centered alternatives to incarceration.
Others say the problem runs deeper than Clinton’s agenda suggests.
Clinton’s proposal promises to expend $200 million annually to dispatch “school climate support teams” into districts and schools with high suspension and arrest rates, with the purpose of tackling implicit bias—the subconscious ways in which perceptions based on race, gender, religion, or any number of characteristics feed negative stereotypes—and training educators in de-escalation tactics. But some educators say this proposal fails to closely look at implicit bias and the trauma it creates in classrooms across the country.
“In my experience working in historically and systemically disenfranchised communities of color, in which 99 percent of students are at or below the poverty line, what I see most frequently is a lot of trauma,” said Brittney Elyse Sampson-Thompson, a longtime educator who is currently serving middle school students at a charter school in Philadelphia.
“In schools where there is a large police presence or leaders who are quick to call the police on their students I’ve seen crazy things. When fifth-grade girls are led out of school in handcuffs my first thought is about the incredible ripple effect that will have, not only in the life of that young lady and her family, but also for every other child in the building who witnessed it,” she told Rewire.
“For the child herself it means that the idea of being arrested, of being in a cop car, of waiting in a precinct for her parents to arrive is no longer foreign—it becomes a true experience that she has lived. Add to that the fact that it happened while the child was in school—where she should be safe, not only physically but also emotionally and mentally safe to take risks and to explore and to be a child—and the situation becomes frankly tragic,” Sampson-Thompson added. “We serve in communities that have experienced generations of trauma and if we aren’t actively working against it, we add to it.”
Those whose work has focused closely on the intersections of race and gender in the school-to-prison pipeline also feel the proposal has some glaring gaps.
“Clinton ought to have an intersectional framework for understanding the gender dynamics of racial inequality that make girls vulnerable to both public and private expressions of violence,” said Ocen, co-author of a report on the disproportionate impact of the school-to-prison pipeline on Black girls, which found that they are six times as likely to be suspended as their white counterparts.
“She needs to be attentive to the gendered pathways that lead Black girls to being disproportionately incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities, and to be attentive to the fact that not only are girls and women among the fastest growing populations in prison, but also that the vast majority of them had been victims of physical or sexual abuse prior to being incarcerated,” Ocen said.
“Clinton will continue to have an incomplete understanding of racial justice and an incomplete racial justice platform until she attends to the specific vulnerabilities of girls and women of color,” Ocen added. “Both candidates ought to be listening to the people who are most affected by these policies, listening to their stories, their calls for transformation and their suggestions for what actually works.”