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In Defense Of The City’s Sex Education Mandate

In 2012, Mayor Bloomberg’s mandate to provide comprehensive sex education is scheduled to take effect in New York City’s public middle and high schools. As the executive director of Inwood House, which specializes in teen pregnancy prevention and supportive services for pregnant and parenting teens, and as one of the mayor’s appointees to the Panel for Educational Policy, I support this addition to our youth’s education.

I also understand that while the majority of parents welcome sex education for their child, others are apprehensive. I would like to address the concerns and critiques that have surfaced since the mandate’s announcement.

One major concern is that teaching sex education in schools undermines values that parents teach at home. Critics of the mandate point to the “risk cards” used by the Reducing the Risk curriculum which compare the relative risks of sexual practices. They also cite homework assignments that require students to locate sexual health resources in their neighborhoods.

It’s important to keep in mind that nearly half the DOE-recommended curriculum lessons for high school students are devoted to abstinence, refusal techniques, delaying tactics, and ways to avoid high-risk situations. These teach our teens how to think critically about making healthy decisions. The risk cards and sexual health resource assignments arm them with medically accurate information that informs those decisions. It is well documented that having information about and access to contraception does not advance sexual activity. Knowing where to go for sexual health resources is a skill and safety measure that will protect them throughout their lives.

And early detection of potentially fatal sexually transmitted infections and HIV is critical for effective treatment and reducing transmission. A report just issued by New York University’s Silver School of Social Work on adolescent sexual health disparities for Bronx youth cites limited access to reproductive health services among adolescents as a key factor in their poor sexual health outcomes.

Keeping youth ignorant cannot be our strategy for keeping them out of trouble. And we would be naive to think that they aren’t learning about sex from other, less credible sources, such as TV, Facebook, YouTube, and cell phones. There is a need for objective, medically accurate information to be provided, and the opportunity for teens to reflect and problem-solve about that information. The logical question that follows is “who should provide it?” Is it the role and responsibility of families or schools?

I submit that both have a responsibility. When over 8,000 teenagers give birth to babies each year in New York City and statistics tell us that most teen mothers and their children have outcomes that limit their chances for successful, healthy lives, then schools, as a social institution, have an obligation to act. Does that undermine the responsibility of parents to act? Not at all. Parents have the largest responsibility, but when we see futures being derailed by risky sexual activity and premature parenting, then it is appropriate for multiple social institutions to respond.

Sexual development is an inevitable part of adolescent growth and human development. Children will grow into teens with new bodies that are capable of sexual behavior and reproduction. But teenage pregnancy is not inevitable. Reducing the number of teen pregnancies and youth with sexually transmitted illnesses and HIV is a responsibility of all of us.

Should parents be forced to have their children participate in comprehensive sex education if they believe it undermines their values? No. That’s why they can opt their child out. It is my opinion that we should not aspire to teach sex education without values. Its goal should be to teach young people that engaging in sexual behavior is complex and requires critical thinking about their health, values, identity, spiritual beliefs, culture, and goals for the future.

A public institution should share in the responsibility of educating its citizenry, particularly when there’s substantial evidence that their health and well-being are being compromised. The more than 8,000 babies born to NYC teen girls each year present serious public health and social welfare problems. And, as reported in the Silver School study, New York City’s HIV and STI rates among youth are significantly higher than the nation’s in four out of five boroughs.

Finally, I would like to address the fear that when we simultaneously teach abstinence and risk reduction, we are confusing youth through mixed messages. Does teaching teens about contraception imply that we have no faith in their ability to control their behavior and avoid sex?

I believe that we must respect the intelligence and integrity of our youth to make healthy decisions about sex when they have accurate information at their disposal. Moreover, it is our responsibility as adults and role models to communicate our values and our belief in their ability to make sound choices. If we trust that they are capable of doing so, why should we feel compelled to withhold critical information, an essential component to making any sound decision? They need not be ignorant to keep their innocence.

Linda Lausell Bryant is the Executive Director of Inwood House, a teen pregnancy prevention and teen parent support agency serving nearly 4,000 underserved youth annually, including at a number of city schools. Since 2009, she has been a mayoral appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy.

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