September 12, 2012

By Johanna Miller

Many of our region’s public schools are leaving our teens unprepared to make informed and healthy choices about sex and relationships.

The New York Civil Liberties Union recently performed an extensive analysis of sex-ed textbooks and materials used in 82 public school districts across the state. We found that school districts throughout the western region, including Buffalo, Hamburg and Olean, have provided sex-ed instruction that is inaccurate, incomplete and biased against LGBT students.

These pervasive shortcomings underscore the urgent need for underscore the urgent need for New York State to require comprehensive, medically accurate and bias-free sex education in its public schools.

The Buffalo school district – one of the state’s largest – uses a textbook that teaches abstinence-only strategies for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. It does not even mention condoms or contraception, let alone teach students about them. Students did receive materials on HIV prevention, but the abstinence-only textbook deprives them of crucial information and skills.

Further, with few exceptions, sex-ed instruction either ignores or stigmatizes LGBT students. School districts provide little instruction on sexual orientation, same-sex couples or gender identity. Several districts only mention gay people in the context of HIV lessons. For example, materials used in the Lake Shore School District instruct students that “most [HIV] infected people are homosexual men and drug users who used unsterile needles.”

Sex ed materials we studied often contained negative gender stereotypes. Worksheets used in the Yorkshire-Pioneer District illustrate this: One describes women as “hazardous material” and another, cast as a math worksheet, instructs students that “woman = problem.”

Overall, the region’s school districts have done a poor job teaching students about bullying, including its affects on health and mental health, and strategies for preventing it. And there was little instruction to encourage teens to talk to their parents about sex, sexual identity or relationships.

When students don’t receive quality sex education, they are more likely to become sexually active without the knowledge that responsible sexuality requires. The consequences can be severe: unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections are chief among them.

Nearly 45 percent of New York’s male high school students and about 40 percent of female students are sexually active – but 1-in-3 boys reported that they don’t use condoms and 4-in-5 girls say they don’t take birth control pills. New York’s teen pregnancy rate is the 11th highest amongst the 50 states. And about 1-in-3 of new sexually transmitted infections diagnosed in New York each year occurs among residents 19 and younger.
We can and must reverse these disturbing trends. Requiring comprehensive, effective and bias-free sex ed in all public school classroom is a necessary first step.

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

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