The New York Civil Liberties Union today applauded the New York City Department of Education’s announcement that it will mandate sex-education classes for middle and high school students beginning this fall.

“With this welcome decision, the Department of Education finally demonstrates that it recognizes the importance of providing students the information they need to make healthy choices about sex,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “The DOE must follow through on this important step by ensuring that the sex ed that is actually taught is accurate, effective and respectful of all students, and teachers must be trained to effectively engage students about sexual health.”

There is a consensus among public health experts and the public that age-appropriate, medically accurate comprehensive sex education is essential for providing teens with the tools to become healthy adults. But for years, city schools were not required to provide comprehensive sex education despite a clear need for it: New York City has the highest rates of HIV and AIDS infection in the United States. According to 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Survey data, 41 percent of New York City youth reported becoming sexually active by 9th grade and 58 percent by 12th grade.

“Giving students the information they need to make healthy decisions about sex and sexuality is crucial to the public health,” said Melissa Goodman, senior litigation and policy counsel for reproductive rights. “To ensure that the new mandate works, the DOE must regularly evaluate schools to determine if their sex ed programs are effective and that students are getting the information they need to make good choices.”

While the city has not required comprehensive sex education, it has initiated programs on a pilot basis that could be useful as it considers sex education curricula. In the spring of 2008, the city implemented an evidence-based comprehensive sex education pilot program in 10 South Bronx middle and high schools in the spring of 2008. An evaluation of the program showed that teachers, principals, parents and students widely supported it.