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Testimony: NYC DOE Must Provide Comprehensive Sex Education

Testimony Of Lee Che Leong On Behalf Of The New York Civil Liberties Union Before The New York City Council Committee on Health Regarding the Department of Education’s New Health Education Curriculum

Good afternoon, my name is Lee Che Leong. I am the Director of the Teen Health Initiative of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). I would like to thank the City Council Committees on Health and Education for providing us with the opportunity to address the health education curriculum in New York City public schools.

The NYCLU is the New York State affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and has approximately 50,000 members in New York State. For three decades, the NYCLU has been in the forefront of advocating and litigating for comprehensive sex education in New York. The Teen Health Initiative trains high school students to provide peer education about teens’ rights to reproductive health services. It also provides training programs and publications for professionals who work with young people.

The Department of Education’s recent announcement of the reformation of the Office of School Health is a positive step, but much remains to be done. The lack of a requirement for teaching sex education throughout the public school system, inadequate teacher training and poor oversight means far too many students still lack access to the vital health information they need to protect themselves.

Recent statistics demonstrate the overwhelming need for comprehensive sex education in New York. Nearly 50 percent of all New York City public high school students have had sexual intercourse. Teen women (aged 15 to 19) account for about one-third of Chlamydia and gonorrhea infections in New York City, the highest rates of infection among all age groups. The number of New York City high school students reporting that they had been pregnant or gotten someone pregnant was higher in 2005 than in any year since the Department of Health began reporting these statistics in 1997. New York City alone accounts for 15.5 percent of all AIDS cases in the nation, more than the entire state of California. The Center for Disease Control estimates that at least 50 percent of all new HIV infections nationwide are among young people under the age of 25, and that two Americans between the ages of 13 and 24 become infected with HIV every hour. Statistics just released by the New York City Department of Health show that rates of HIV among men 13 to 19 in New York City doubled between 2001 and 2006; more than 90 percent of those young men were black or Latino. Against this backdrop, the abysmal state of sex education in New York City public schools is not only disappointing, but also dangerous.

Under existing law, the only sex education the state mandates is instruction on HIV/AIDS transmission and prevention. In 1987 New York State began to require HIV/AIDS education for students from kindergarten to 12th grade. In 1991, the Chancellor of the New York City Board of Education expanded requirements to include six HIV/AIDS lessons in grades seven to 12, and a staffed Health Resource Room that offers free condoms for high school students along with information on STDs and other health issues.

The DOE updated its HIV/AIDS curricula in 2005, but there is still no mechanism to ensure that these lessons are being taught. When students in public school are polled, the overwhelming majority are surprised to learn that they should be receiving six lessons on HIV/AIDS a year. And while information on the prevention of HIV/AIDS is certainly better than no information at all, it is not the same as comprehensive sex education. Information on pregnancy prevention and other STIs is essential but absent.

In our work in schools around the city with young people, peer educators, teachers and healthcare providers, we hear countless tales from students who are not receiving the basic knowledge necessary to understand, much less protect, their health. The questions we field from teens reveal the sad state of sexuality education in New York City public schools. We’ve heard sexually active teens ask what penetration is, if emergency contraception is abortion, and whether douching with Coke prevents pregnancy.

Numerous studies demonstrate that comprehensive sex education — health programs that are medically accurate, age-appropriate and include information about contraception in addition to abstinence — is the most effective way to help young people postpone intercourse and reduce their number of sexual partners. Comprehensive sex education also helps to increase the use of condoms and other forms of contraception among young people who are sexually active.

Recently there has been some good news; DOE has agreed to take the following steps:

• DOE has announced the recreation of the Office of School Health which will oversee not only physical education but also the sex education curriculum.
• HealthSmart will be introduced as the new health curriculum.
• Training is underway for a pilot of the Reducing the Risk (RTR) sex ed curriculum to be conducted in 5 Bronx High Schools and 5 Bronx Middle Schools. RTR will be available to supplement HealthSmart at the high school level.
• DOE will release a guide to principals about how to collaborate with CBOs to fulfill curriculum requirements.

These changes were a direct result of an alliance of CBOs pushing for comprehensive sex ed in city schools. A widespread advocacy campaign by NYCLU’s Teen Health Initiative as a part of this alliance collected more than 2,000 signatures from parents, students and voters who want Chancellor Klein to publicly commit to providing the students of New York City schools with comprehensive sex education.

While DOE’s response represents a step in the right direction, much more remains to be done. The NYCLU continues to stand with other advocates in recommending that the following principles should guide DOE’s further efforts:

• Sex Education Must be Taught Every Year: Research shows that when young people have accurate information — whether or not they are sexually active at the time — they are much more likely to protect themselves when they do enter into relationships. The Chancellor should issue a regulation requiring the teaching of age-appropriate sexuality education every year, rather than leaving inclusion to the discretion of individual principals. Ideally, sex education lessons would be integrated into the six HIV/AIDS lessons mandated to be taught in grades seven to 12 every year. The former Family Living including Sex Education (FL/SE curriculum), which was in use in the 1980s, was required every year; we can not afford to take a step backwards regarding the new curriculum. While the 10 school pilot in the Bronx is a good beginning, students outside of this small population continue to be in jeopardy.

• Contraception and Prevention Must be Taught: 95 percent of parents of junior high school students believe that birth control and other methods of preventing pregnancy are appropriate topics for sexuality education programs in schools. We know many NYC middle school students are already sexually active; one in 10 students reports having had sex before the age of 13. Incorporating information on contraception promotes health and prevention strategies; to deny middle school students access to the information to protect themselves is irresponsible from a public health perspective. Furthermore, DOE should heed the advice of their consultants and curriculum and include condom demonstrations as a part of comprehensive sexuality education at the high school level. Condom demonstrations are vital to teaching proper usage and should be included in classrooms at the high school level.

• Sexual Orientation Diversity Must be Acknowledged: DOE must clearly commit to including issues concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth (LGBTQ) youth in the sex ed curriculum. CDC Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Surveys have found that, as a result of violence and isolation, LGBTQ young people are two to five times more likely than their heterosexual peers to report skipping school because of feeling unsafe during the past month, and more than four times as likely to say they made a serious suicide attempt in the past year. Curricular inclusion, especially within health education models, is a necessary component of remedying the isolation of LGBTQ youth. Additionally, 79 percent of parents want their children to learn about sexual orientation in sex education classes at school.

• Sex Education Must Have An Implementation Plan: We recognize that implementation will take time given the complexity and size of the New York City school system; however, we hope that the implementation of health education will be given the same attention and priority as any other subject matter. When the DOE updated the HIV/AIDS curriculum during the last school year, it created an ambitious schedule of parent meetings and selected a week in March for implementation in elementary schools, but offered no implementation plan for middle and high schools. The sex ed implementation plan that is created should be comprehensive for grades seven to 12.

• Sex Education Must Be Taught By Trained Teachers: Both state and city mandates require specific levels of teacher training for HIV/AIDS education. We are delighted that DOE has finally selected evidenced-based curricula, but the best curriculum in the world isn’t of any use if teachers are not comfortable teaching. Teachers don’t need a “script,” but rather training to empower them to make appropriate decisions regarding their students. For the HIV/AIDS curriculum a “train the trainer” model was used, but we have yet to learn how many teachers were actually trained or even which schools sent staff. DOE must ensure that teachers receive adequate training to accurately and sensitively offer sexuality education.

• Sex Education Requires a Plan for Evaluation: There must be a purposeful and public evaluation plan for the curriculum. Best program practices dictate that evaluation occurs from the very beginning of implementation, should be both quantitative and qualitative and should have buy-in from all stakeholders. Tools that will best measure knowledge, attitudinal and behavioral changes and track positive outcomes on a continuing basis must be designed as soon as possible and integrated into the implementation plan to ensure future success and public support of the curriculum. These components were not included in any meaningful way in the implementation of the HIV/AIDS curriculum. DOE should not make the same mistake again.

In conclusion, we applaud the DOE’s efforts to update the HIV/AIDS curriculum and their introduction of a new health curriculum. However, New York City public schools still lack trained teachers, necessary oversight and a method for monitoring basic compliance. DOE has an obligation to provide students with the knowledge they need to become healthy adults. Experience has shown that too often, teens receive partial information, or information driven by ideology rather than public health, when they receive any information at all. We look forward to working with members of the City Council to fulfill this critical public health mandate.

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