News Sexual Health

New York City Mandates Comprehensive Sex Education in Public Schools

Jodi Jacobson

New York City takes steps to protect students by mandating that public schools offer  comprehensive sex education.

See our other reports on New York City’s sex ed program here.

You have to hand it to New York City for doing the right thing(s) for sexual health and rights lately.

First, the city passed a law mandating that crisis pregnancy centers, which use misinformation and ideology to misdirect women trying to make a life-changing decision, disclose whether or not they have medical staff and/or offer birth control and abortion care services.  This law was subsequently and unfortunately blocked in court through a preliminary injunction a court and its fate remains unknown.

Now, the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg has mandated that New York City Public Schools teach comprehensive sex education, requiring that students in middle and high schools take sex-ed classes beginning this school year.  According to the New York Times, the classes will include explicit information on how to use condoms and other information on safer sex.  The city’s mandate is broader than current state regulations requiring that middle and high school students take one semester of health education classes in that it requires a semester of sex education in 6th or 7th grade, and again in 9th or 10th grade, and also suggests use of the recommended programs HealthSmart and Reducing the Risk. A city survey of principals last year found that 64 percent of middle schools were using the HealthSmart curriculum, notes the Times.

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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.

“The new mandate is part of a broader strategy the Bloomberg administration announced last week to improve the lives of black and Latino teenagers,” report Fernanda Santos and Anna M. Phillips of the Times. “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.”

Citing a Guttmacher Institute report, the Times notes that between 2006 and 2008, one in four teenagers in the United States learned about abstinence without receiving any instruction in schools about contraceptive methods.

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.

At a time when it seems that the full force of political heat is directed at vilifying Latino and African American populations, the Bloomberg administration is taking other steps to support a diverse population of youth, by, for example, announcing a three-year, $130 million initiative to improve the lives of young minority men in the city.

And in a climate in which sexual health has become increasingly stigmatized, the city’s approach is so straightforward it is both so refreshing and just-plain-common sense that it almost shouldn’t be news, but at the same time almost shocking. “Parents will be able to have their children opt out of the lessons on birth-control methods,” reports the Times.

  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.

Health and rights advocates applauded the mandate as a victory.

“As longtime sex educators, we are pleased to see the city finally taking action on this important issue,” said Joan Malin, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of New York City. “For far too long, too many of New York’s young people have been missing out on this vital information.”

“We are thrilled that the New York City Department of Education has taken an historic step in issuing a mandate for sex education,” said the statement of NARAL Pro-Choice New York.  “Beginning this fall, all public middle and high schools will be required to teach one semester each of sex education.”

In our 2010 report on the state of sex education in New York City public schools, interviews with parents, teachers, and—most importantly—students themselves revealed how sex education in New York City is inconsistent, with many schools failing to give students the information they need to prevent unintended pregnancies and STIs, make informed and healthy decisions, and keep themselves safe. Our years of experience working directly with New York City youth through our TORCH peer sexuality education program supports these findings: sexual health knowledge differs from school to school, and sometimes from classroom to classroom.

This mandate will standardize the loose patchwork approach that has allowed too many students to fall through the cracks for too long.

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.”

A 2009 survey by NARAL Pro-Choice New York found that 81 percent of city voters thought sex education should be taught in public schools. Despite the strenuous protests of the minority represented by anti-sex ed, anti-choice groups, that statistic mirrors support for comprehensive sex throughout the country.

Yet even while celebrating this victory, health educators expressed hope the city would go further.

“As groundbreaking as this mandate may be,” stated NARAL Pro-Choice New York, “it should be the beginning and not the end of the city’s efforts to provide students with the comprehensive, age-appropriate, medically-accurate sexuality education they need.”

“Comprehensive sex education is a lifelong process,” said PPNYC’s Malin.

“It includes the basics, such as hygiene and anatomy, as well as encouragement of parent-child communication, workshops on healthy relationships, and other vital information to keep our young people safe and healthy. The requirement to teach two years of sex education is a great first step, but the reality is that if we want to really protect our young people, we need to integrate good, effective, comprehensive, and age-appropriate sex education into every grade in every year of school.”

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.