(Photo: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com/flickr)
Written by Martha Kempner for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.
Along with many others children, teens, and adults, this week I went back to school, too. I started teaching Introduction to Human Sexuality at a local college, something I haven’t done in about six years. In an effort to gauge what my students had already learned and what they wanted to know, I gave them an anonymous questionnaire which, in part, asked them to describe their sexuality education up until this point. At least five of them said that they’d had the “standard” or “usual” high school sex education. Unfortunately, this wasn’t particularly enlightening to me because as a new report from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) highlights: when it comes to sex ed there is no such thing as standard; every district or even every classroom is different.
A survey of school systems across New York was conducted by NYCLU to determine what, if anything, they were teaching students about sex. Schools in the state are not required to teach comprehensive sexuality education, and while they are required to teach about HIV and certain other health topics, most of the lessons do not address sexuality or relationships. Schools do have to teach about alcohol, drugs, and tobacco; the prevention and detection of certain cancers; child development and parenting skills; and interpersonal violence. They do not, according to the new report, Birds, Bees, and Bias, How Absent Sex Ed Standards Fail New York Students, have to teach about “healthy relationship skills, STI and pregnancy prevention, puberty, [and] anatomy” or “other core aspects of effective, comprehensive sex education.” In 2005, the Department of Education issued state standards for health education, which included many topics related to sexual health. However, these standards are voluntary, and school districts do not have to comply with them. The authors also mention the National Sex Education Standards, which were released early this year by a number of national organizations. These set minimum content requirements for concepts in sex education but are also not binding. The report concludes:
“The current legal and policy climate permits schools in New York to decide what, if any, sex education they will teach beyond the mandated HIV education. As a result, whether New York’s teens graduate from high school with the information and skills crucial to making lifelong healthy and informed decisions about sex and relationships rests in the hands of each individual school district, principal and health education teacher, with little guidance and even less oversight.”
To determine what students are learning, NYCLU sent questionnaires to a sample of school districts across the state making sure to include small, medium, and large districts. New York City was excluded in part for efficiency purposes. Since the surveys were sent out, however, the city passed a sex education mandate that went into during the 2011-2012 school year. NYCLU says: “We look forward to reviewing New York City data and instruction at a future date.” In total, 108 school districts were included, representing 542,955 students or nearly half of all students enrolled in districts outside New York City. In addition, the authors reviewed the most commonly used textbooks in the state.
The study found major gaps in the education young people should have been receiving, as well as numerous factual errors and biases in the information they were actually given.
Outdated HIV Information
As the only sexuality-related topic that is mandated, HIV is one of the subjects most likely to be covered by school districts in the state. In fact, 93 percent of districts surveyed provided information on this topic. Unfortunately, many of them used outdated information on “prognosis, drug therapies, prevention and transmission.” Some of the outdated and inaccurate information includes districts telling kids:
- “Once you have AIDS you will live from 6 months to 3 years.”
- “[HIV] kills an individual.”
One district mentions AZT, the earliest antiretroviral drug, which was introduced in 1987, but does not discuss any of the newer available therapies. Another provides students with a handout that gives an illustrated timeline of what happens when you become infected with HIV. The timeline explains that one goes from being asymptomatic to having HIV symptoms within 12 years (without mentioning available drug therapies), that the individual then goes from HIV symptoms to AIDS and opportunistic infections within two years, and from there they go to a tombstone that says RIP within two more years.
Anything with a tombstone is clearly trying to instill fear in young people, which is bad enough, but this illustration is troubling in other ways as well. It misses many opportunities to talk about how people are now managing to stay healthy longer with HIV, and it misses all opportunities to mention how to prevent the spread of HIV. In fact, the person in the timeline gets tested for HIV and finds out he’s positive before going into the stage where he is asymptomatic which is described as “feeling healthy but still spreading HIV.”
Young people should know that HIV is preventable through both abstinence and the use of condoms and that it is possible to have it without spreading it.
Incomplete Information about Anatomy
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