Sex and the Kiddies

The city is launching a new sex ed program—minus a few key points

In a June 2 letter responding to criticisms, Roger Platt of the Office of School Health offered clear reassurances about only some of the issues they raised. The office had already corrected factual errors pointed out by advocates, according to the letter. Platt was also clear that the Department of Education is in the process of injecting some New York references into the curriculum. While the original version of Health Teacher includes images of white teenagers getting into their cars and talking about the mall, new illustrations will reflect the racial, ethnic, and cultural reality of the city schools.

Adding pictures of the subway and drawing teenagers so they look less like Betty, Veronica, and Jughead and more like real New York City public school students—who are 85 percent nonwhite—is the easy part. More dicey, at least in political terms, will be adding discussion of sexual orientation and contraception to the middle school curriculum. And Platt's letter offered no promises these issues would be dealt with. (Since he wrote the letter, the Office of School Health was moved and is now run by the Department of Education; Platt has remained with the Department of Health. The Department of Education recently appointed a new director of health education, Betty Rothbart, who has not yet begun work.)

The organizations hoping to improve sex education have so far worked on friendly terms with the Department of Education, praising it for carrying out the curriculum overhaul at a good pace and thoughtfully choosing programs for both health and HIV education. The tone has been nonconfrontational. Though many advocates support the demonstration of condoms in the classroom, for instance, none has yet publicly challenged the Department of Education's decision to ban them.

If officials don't respond to the urgings to teach students about homosexuality and birth control in middle school, however, the heretofore chummy dialogue could turn into something more like the Rainbow Curriculum mess.

"It's clear to me that those issues must be addressed in the school system. I think it's something that we need to pressure the Department of Education on," says Assemblyman Stringer, whose 2003 report on health education in city public schools helped spur the overhaul. Listening to parents, teachers, and children's advocates, he says, will help the Department of Education steer clear of the brawl it ran into last time. "If we engage in this debate with transparency, then it won't end in controversy."

Sharon Lerner is a senior fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.
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