EDITORIAL: Sex education: Will we ever learn?

NOT AGAIN. Do we really have to talk about how sex education should be taught in public schools? That is so 1990s. How come we don’t retain the lessons of the past?

Now there are new concepts we have to teach involving sex, as in gender. This summer the state Education Department issued a 12-page memo that offers specific guidance on how school districts should provide “all public school students, including transgender and gender nonconforming (GNC) students, with an environment free from discrimination and harassment.” The memo focuses on fostering civility in public schools and ensuring that “every student has equal access to educational programs and activities.”

This follows from the state Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which prohibits harassment or bullying of students by “employees or students on school property or at a school function.” The law also protects students from being “subjected to discrimination based on a person’s actual or perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender (including gender identity or expression), or sex by school employees or students on school property or at a school function.”

It’s a simple principle that should be obvious but is often ignored: Just because some people see you as different from them doesn’t mean they can take away your rights. Now it’s up to communities and to schools to reinforce this principle. If the past is any guide, the effort to raise awareness and convince those who disagree that this change is good for everybody will not be easy or quick.

The prospect of having to reinforce good ideas that once seemed settled came up at last week’s meeting of the Ichabod Crane Central School District Board of Education meeting, when Superintendent George Zini discussed the district’s sex education program. He told the board that only HIV/AIDS is required by the state and that a previous school administration had endorsed a curriculum based on abstinence as the only means of preventing this sexually transmitted disease.

The logic of this approach sounds unassailable: if all students abstain from sex until they enter a monogamous relationship with another abstinent person, there will be no transmission of HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases and possibly fewer unwanted or unexpected teen pregnancies. This is not a real policy. It is a prayer recited by many parents. It ignores reality. Insisting on abstinence doesn’t work.

In 2013 the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly half of the high school students surveyed–47%–reported having sexual intercourse. Some had used a condom, which, after abstinence, is the best method of protection, but a significant portion had not.

Without data proving otherwise, Columbia County educators will have to assume that teenagers here behave like young people everywhere else in the country in terms of their sexual behavior, which means many teens are needlessly at risk. Only education, peer pressure and ready access to condoms will, in combination, offer them protection.

Mr. Zini’s presentation to the board included discussion of allowing parents to have their kids excused from HIV/AIDS education. That’s a terrible idea. Would the board allow exemptions from a driver education class discussion of the perils of drinking and driving because parents object to alcohol? A class that can save kids’ lives should not be optional.

This isn’t just about protecting kids, either. The CDC says that sexually transmitted diseases cost the nation $16 billion in medical expenses, and that figure is seven years out of date. The tab isn’t any smaller today.

The ICC board is working its way toward a new health education policy, starting with the creation of a community council mandated by the state. The council is supposed to make policy recommendations. That’s very well-intentioned, but the school board shouldn’t lose sight of its obligation to protect the lives and health of the students. Those kids deserve the broadest science-based sex education curriculum available.

This duty to update and expand sex education applies to every district in the county, not just ICC. Districts that haven’t started this task should put it at the top of their agendas.

ICC must comply with the protections now afforded to transgender and gender nonconforming students. That would be easier if the district could use the example of an enlightened sex education curriculum for guidance in this sensitive matter. Instead the district has to revise a dangerously outdated  policy that may already have put children at risk.

Comments are closed.