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Op-Ed: Students Need the Right Sex Ed (Albany Times-Union)

By Johanna Miller

It’s shocking what passes for sex education in classrooms across our state: A school district in western New York used a handout portraying women as “hazardous material.” A district in the North Country has taught students that the vagina is a “sperm deposit.” And a district outside Albany has advised students that same-sex attraction is a cause to seek counseling.

These examples underscore the urgent need for comprehensive, medically accurate and bias-free sex education in New York’s public schools. While the state requires all public school students to learn about HIV and AIDS, it does not require general sex education. Nor does New York require schools that choose to teach sex ed to use a comprehensive, accurate, and bias-free curriculum. As a result, many children are denied information they need to make healthy decisions about sex and relationships.

The New York Civil Liberties Union recently performed a detailed analysis of sex ed materials and textbooks used in 82 public school districts across New York state during the 2008-09 and 2010-11 school years. We discovered that schools frequently provided sex ed instruction that is inaccurate, incomplete or biased.

Medical inaccuracies were common. One district used a handout that stated “if you get AIDS you will probably die of the disease, but that’s all we know.” A third of districts used materials that have an anti-choice bias, such as incorrectly referring to an embryo as a “baby.” While 80 percent of districts used illustrations of male and female reproductive organs, nearly two-thirds of those omitted external female genitalia.

All of the most commonly used textbooks teach abstinence-only strategies for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections — meaning they do not mention, let alone teach students about, condoms or contraception. While 80 percent of districts nonetheless teach students about condoms, only a third taught students in their proper use.

In many health classrooms across the state, LGBT students are ignored or actively stigmatized. More than half of the school districts did not provide any instruction about sexual orientation and only 17 percent taught about gender identity or transgender people. Lessons and role plays nearly uniformly assumed boy-girl pairings. Only five districts used materials that acknowledged same-sex parents.

Most districts did not teach information about bullying (63 percent), and many did not teach about sexual harassment (42 percent), sexual assault or rape (28 percent).

Students who don’t receive quality sex education can become sexually active without the knowledge that responsible sexuality requires and can suffer severe consequences for their ignorance — unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections chief among them.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 44 percent of New York’s male high school students and 40 percent of female students are sexually active — but 1-in-3 sexually active boys report that they don’t use condoms, and nearly 8-in-10 sexually active girls say they don’t use oral contraceptives.

As a result, New York’s teen pregnancy rate is the 11th highest amongst the 50 states, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The state Department of Health found that about one out of every new sexually transmitted infections diagnosed in New York occurs among residents 19 and younger.

Some argue that parents, not public schools, bear primary responsibility for educating children about sex and sexuality. While parents ought to discuss “the birds and the bees” with their children, studies show that they can be reluctant to tackle the more difficult issues surrounding sex.

For example, a 2011 national poll conducted by Planned Parenthood and New York University found that 57 percent of parents feel “somewhat comfortable” or “uncomfortable” talking to their children about sex. The same poll showed that 40 percent of parents struggle to talk to their children about condoms and other birth control.

New Yorkers widely support comprehensive sex ed in public schools. A 2009 poll showed that 87 percent of New York voters said it was important that public schools provide sex education. Dozens of states require comprehensive sex education in public schools or set binding standards for sexual health instruction. For the health and benefit of our students, New York should join them.

Johanna Miller is the assistant advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and an author of the report Birds, Bees and Bias: How Absent Sex Ed Standards Fail New York’s Students.

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