Testimony of the New York Civil Liberties Union before The New York City Council Committees on Women’s Issues, Health, and Education regarding Comprehensive Sexuality Education; Int 0771-2015, T2015-2665, T-2015-3641October 27, 2015
Good afternoon. My name is Katharine Bodde and I am a Policy Counsel with the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Rights Program. I would like to thank the Committees on Women’s Issues, Health, and Education for inviting us to provide testimony today in support of policies that ensure students in New York City (“NYC”) Schools receive comprehensive sexual health education.
The New York Civil Liberties Union (“NYCLU”), the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, is a not-for-profit, nonpartisan organization with eight offices across the state, and nearly 50,000 members. The NYCLU’s mission is to defend and promote the fundamental principles, rights and constitutional values embodied in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York. This includes the rights to privacy, personal autonomy, and equal opportunities that are the foundation of reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy.
The NYCLU supports individual’s ability to make meaningful decisions about their lives and futures; and this requires creating a society in which people have access to the information, resources and services they need to make informed, supported decisions about their bodies and their relationships. To this end, the NYCLU strongly believes that New York’s young people deserve sexual health education in Kindergarten through twelfth grade (“K-12”) that is age-appropriate, medically accurate, and comprehensive.
The need for comprehensive sexual health education is explicit and urgent. Students who don’t receive quality sexuality education enter adolescence ill-informed and miseducated; they become sexually active and enter relationships without the knowledge they need to act responsibly and safely. The stakes are much higher than simply failing a test—lack of comprehensive sexual health education can lead to harmful relationships, unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, bullying, sexual assault and discrimination. Comprehensive sex education is a critical component of a successful health education program and of a student’s overall educational achievement and success in life. Research demonstrates that effective sex education improves young people’s health, and delays sexual activity.1 And New Yorkers overwhelmingly support sexual health education in schools.2
However, many New York City students report they have not received any sexual health education while in school. In a recent survey by the Connect to Protect (C2P) Bronx Coalition, fewer than two-thirds of Bronx high school students said they learned about healthy relationships, and just 37 percent learned communication skills when it comes to sex.3 This means that most students are receiving little education or instruction that can foster tolerance, awareness or support of non-traditional sex roles and gender models (gender norms). It means that LGBTQ students receive little or no relevant information on safe sex and healthy relationships. It means that the physical health and sexual and emotional well-being of New York’s youngest residents is being compromised. And the failure to provide sexual health education not only limits young people’s education; this failure aggravates health disparities and undermines students’ ability to succeed in school4
While New York State requires all public school students to learn about HIV and AIDS, it does not require general sexual health education, leaving vast gaps in skills, awareness and knowledge. This knowledge gap carries great risks. According to the NYCLU report Birds, Bees and Bias: How Absent Sex Ed Standards Fail New York’s Students, which examines sex-ed materials used during the 2009-2010 and 2010-11 school years from across New York State, many public school districts across New York State provide sexuality education instruction that is inaccurate, incomplete and biased.
States and cities across the country, including Chicago and Boston, are requiring comprehensive sexuality education in schools. New York, however, is being left behind. While efforts have been made to pass meaningful reform on the state level, Albany has failed to act. It is up to localities, including New York City, the largest school district in the country, to do right by our youth and communities. While the city has taken steps toward addressing these gaps by recommending that sexuality education be incorporated in one mandated semester of health education in middle school and high school, this is inadequate.
Proposed legislation now before the City Council would require that the city’s Department of Education report information on whether or not sexual health education is being taught. But creating transparency without a foundational policy mandating sexual health instruction is backwards. It is not within NYC Council’s power to legislate a mandate for sexual health education in schools; therefore the Department of Education must take the lead.
The NYCLU strongly urges the Mayor and the DOE to pass a Chancellor’s Regulation requiring comprehensive sexual health education K-12 that reflects the National Sexuality Education Standards. Sexual Health education in elementary school is developmentally appropriate and will allow students to develop a deeper understanding of autonomy, healthy relationships, and consent. Just as we would not assume that a student who has never done simple arithmetic can jump into complex math equations, we cannot expect students who have never been introduced to sexuality education in earlier grades to grasp the complex material they are asked to learn in later grades. And in order to ensure that students are receiving sexual health education, we urge the DOE to create a meaningful implementation and monitoring plan that ensures that all NYC public school students receive sexual health education.
I will offer a specific recommendation regarding the reporting requirements proposed by the City Council in Int. No. 771 and T2015-3641. The NYCLU has serious concerns as to the confidentiality safeguards in the proposed legislation. Minors in New York State have the legal right to provide informed consent to confidential reproductive and sexual health care. In order to protect this right, the NYCLU strongly recommends that the Council revise Int. No. 771 and T2015-3641 to include explicit protections of confidential communications between minors and their health care providers. Without these protections, minors will not seek the care they need to keep themselves healthy and safe.
The lack of a mandate requiring medically accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive and unbiased sexual health education puts NYC students, and the public health, at undue risk. New York’s young people need and deserve access to comprehensive sexual health education that is respectful and inclusive of all students.
The NYCLU urges the DOE to act and require sexual health instruction in kindergarten through twelfth grade, ensuring that every young person educated in our public school system obtains the skills and knowledge they need for a healthy future.
I commend the New York City Council’s support of comprehensive sexuality education. It is this continuing support and leadership that will ensure that comprehensive sexual health instruction is a reality for NYC students. Thank you.
Footnotes1 Pamela K. Kohler, RN. et al., Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education and the Initiation of Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy, J. of Adolescent Health, Spring 2008, available athttp://www.jahonline.org/article/S1054-139X(07)00426-0/fulltext (hereinafter Kohler); Douglas Kirby, Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases, The Nat’l Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2007, 127-36; Douglas Kirby et al., Impact of Sex and HIV Education Programs on Sexual Behaviors of Youth in Developing and Developed Countries 26-42 (Family Health Int’l, Working Paper No. 2, 2005), available at https://www.iywg.org/sites/iywg/files/youth_research_wp_2.pdf ; Sue Alford,
Advocates for Youth, Science and Success: Sex Education and Other Programs that Work to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, HIV & Sexually Transmitted Infections (2d ed. 2008), available at http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/storage/advfy/documents/sciencesuccess.pdf ; see also Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Young People at Risk: HIV/AIDS Among America’s Youth, The Body, Jan. 31, 2001.
2 Poll conducted by Global Strategy Group, February 2-8, 2009, for the National Institute for Reproductive Health (in a 2009 poll, 87 percent of New York voters said it was important that public schools provide sex education to students); Lake Research Partners. Family Planning Advocates of New York Survey on New York State Reproductive Health Act, December 2011 (a 2011 poll showed that more than three-fourths of New York voters favor teaching comprehensive sex education).
3Sexual Health Education Survey, Connect to Protect (C2P) Bronx Coalition, 2014 (on file with SEANYC).
4 Basch CE. Healthier Students Are Better Learners: a Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap. Equity Matters; Research Review #6. NY: Teachers College of Columbia University, 2010; Dilley J. Research Review: School-Based Health Interventions and Academic Achievement. Washington State Board of Health, 2009. http://here.doh.wa.gov/materials/research-review-school-based-health-int...