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Bird, Bees and Bias: How New York Schools are Failing our Young People

Johanna Miller,
Director, Education Policy Center,
New York Civil Liberties Union
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September 14, 2012

You won’t believe what passes for sex ed in classrooms across New York State:

An anatomy lesson defining the vagina as a “sperm deposit.”
A handout portraying women as “hazardous material.”
Cautioning students that same-sex attraction is a cause to seek “counseling.”

These are just a few of many disturbing findings in Birds, Bees and Bias: How Absent Sex Ed Standards Fail New York’s Students — a report the New York Civil Liberties Union released this week that examines sex-ed instruction in 82 New York public school districts. (New York City, which mandates sex ed in middle and high schools, was excluded from our study.) We found that school districts across the state have used sex-ed materials that are inaccurate, incomplete or riddled with bias.

Our analysis shows how the lack of binding statewide sex-ed standards is jeopardizing the health and well being of New York’s youth. State officials can fix this problem by establishing binding standards – much as it does for math, reading and science – to ensure all public schools students receive comprehensive, medically accurate and bias-free sex ed.

We found lessons that contained glaring inaccuracies about basic anatomy, reinforced negative gender stereotypes, and stigmatized LGBT students and families. Many school districts do little to educate students on how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections and sexual assault.

All of the most commonly used textbooks teach abstinence-only strategies for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections — meaning they do not mention, let alone teach students about, condoms or contraception. While 80 percent of districts teach students something about condoms, only a third actually teach students how to use them properly.

In many health classrooms across the state, LGBT students and students from LGBT families are ignored or actively stigmatized. More than half of the school districts did not acknowledge, much less discuss sexual orientation, and only 17 percent discussed gender identity or transgender people. A worksheet used in one district explained same-sex attraction under “Taboo Definitions.” Lessons and role playing exercises nearly uniformly assumed boy-girl pairings. Only five districts in the entire state used materials that acknowledged same-sex parents. There are an estimated 18,000 married same-sex couples in New York State. And tens of thousands of others are living together in loving and committed relationships.

Most districts did not teach information about bullying (63 percent), and many did not teach about sexual harassment (42 percent), sexual assault or rape (28 percent). Whether a young person has the information they need to make healthy decisions about dating, sex and relationships should not depend on what county they live in. And here’s the kicker—we know what works in sex education. We know that giving teens the information they need to make informed decisions about sex and relationships helps them delay sex and protects their health. Nationwide, 15-19 year olds who participated in sexuality education programs that discuss the importance of delaying sex and provide information about contraceptive use were significantly less likely to report teen pregnancies than were those who received either no sex education or attended abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

New York, there is no excuse. We can and must do better. By setting binding standards for sex education, we can make sure that all our young people have the information and tools they need to make safe and healthy decisions about sex and relationships. If you’re a New Yorker, please urge the State Education Department to set binding standards for comprehensive, medically accurate and bias-free sex ed in all of our state’s public schools.

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