When New York City’s public school students return to the classroom next month, many will be taught a new take on sex education, which the city has updated for the first time in 20 years. High schoolers will learn the difference between sexual harassment and flirting, how to set a sexual limit, and sexual refusal skills. Middle schoolers will learn about reproductive anatomy and the benefits of sexual abstinence. But what may not be on the syllabus is proving far more controversial than what is.
The new curriculum doesn’t teach middle schoolers about birth control, for instance, or address sexual orientation except in the context of AIDS. Activists, who have been working with the city on the overhaul for the past year, are upset about the omissions.
“It’s obvious we can’t wait until high school to start talking about contraception,” says Christina Kazanas of the Task Force on Sexual Health and HIV Education in New York City Public Schools and director of state and local affairs for the New York AIDS Coalition. As for the failure to address sexual orientation, Kazanas says, “It’s a very big deal.”
Sex education is often a minefield. The city’s last attempt at overhauling sex education foundered over similar issues 13 years ago, when then schools chancellor Joseph Fernandez proposed his “Rainbow Curriculum.” Religious conservatives allied with then mayoral candidate Rudy Giuliani flew into a rage over Fernandez’s effort to promote tolerance of homosexuality and distribute condoms—and sent the chancellor packing. Last week, New York got more proof of the power held by religious conservatives, when Governor George Pataki announced he’d veto a bill to make emergency contraception available without a prescription, because the measure would have allowed minors to buy it without telling their parents.
The Office of School Health ventured into the tricky territory of modernizing the health material more than a year ago, after reports from youth advocates and Assemblyman Scott Stringer charged that sex and AIDS education lessons were outdated and not taught frequently enough to satisfy students’ needs and the city’s own mandates.
The result is both an updated series of lessons about HIV and AIDS, for which the city will train teachers in all five boroughs, and a health education program, called Health Teacher, which includes sex ed, or what the school system calls “Family Health and Sexuality.”
The Department of Education will roll out Health Teacher this fall, concentrating on a handful of neighborhoods in south Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island chosen for their ethnic and economic diversity, where teacher and student experiences with the material will be closely tracked and evaluated.
Even with critical issues unresolved, some instructors are already using Health Teacher in summer school. The Department of Education says it has trained 451 teachers in the new health program since last September, many of whom have put it into place in the classroom.
Condoms come up only in a brief discussion of the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases in the new middle school version of Health Teacher. Advocates point out that many kids are already having sex at that point. Research shows that more than one in 10 New York City public school students report having sex before the age of 13, according to the health department. Nationwide, 61.8 percent of middle schools teach about methods of contraception, according to a 2000 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sexual orientation and gender identity don’t come up in either the middle or high school version of Health Teacher, though the Department of Education says the new HIV lessons do mention homosexuality at the high school level. Officials wouldn’t specify what information is included.
But a discussion of sexual orientation matters beyond the issue of sexually transmitted disease. “When you don’t see info about your life, or your behaviors or your feelings, then you don’t practice any health-promoting behaviors,” says Miriam Yeung, of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center. It’s a view shared by many, with 79 percent of parents nationwide wanting their children to learn about sexual orientation in sex ed classes at school, according to a 2000 poll by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Yeung says the school system’s previous sex ed curriculum, which briefly touched on sexual orientation, was lacking but still better on the subject than Health Teacher. “We’re going from not enough to nothing.”
The updated version of sex education gets nowhere with the idea of condom demonstrations in classrooms. For 14 years, the city has allowed condom demonstrations in resource rooms located in every school, even while it forbids them in the classes. Early copies of Health Teacher suggested using models of penises or cucumbers to show high school students
how to correctly put on a condom. But revised editions include stickers on every page where condom demonstration is mentioned that read, “Notice: New York City Department of Education Policy prohibits condom demonstrations in classrooms.”
The sex ed task force, a group of over 35 local organizations, has convinced the Department of Education to upgrade some features of the curriculum. Members wrote to the Office of School Health in April with several complaints about Health Teacher. In addition to the lack of information about contraception in middle school and the failure to address sexual orientation, advocates pointed to a cultural mismatch between city students and the curriculum, which is produced by a company in Tennessee; they also highlighted several factual inaccuracies.
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.