The talk: How New York is handling sex ed in high schools

Teacher addressing students in a high school classroom
Teacher addressing students in a high school classroom
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The talk: How New York is handling sex ed in high schools

Advocates say more should be done in the #MeToo era.
May 1, 2018

From understanding basic anatomy to disease prevention, health classes during high school arm students with critical information and skills. In light of the #MeToo movement, these classes have gained a new importance: teaching students about consent and sexual misconduct. With other states and major cities moving to require the teaching of consent in sex education classes, is New York behind on implementing and enforcing sexual health education?

There’s evidence that New York could do more: Such classes aren’t always required in high schools, there’s a shortage of professionals to teach the classes, and New York City missed a deadline months ago to complete a report on sex education.

While the topic is more widely discussed in colleges, evidence suggests it is critical to start earlier. The CDC has reported that “11.8 (percent) of girls and 4.5 (percent) of boys from grades 9-12 reported that they were forced to have sexual intercourse at some time in their lives.”

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed Education Law Article 129-B in 2015, known as the “Enough is Enough” Law, which requires colleges and universities to adopt various measures to reduce the number of incidents of sexual assault, including an uniform definition of “consent” in engaging in sexual activity. But in high schools, less has been done.

One of the latest initiatives to understand how policies are being implemented and increase compliance was a New York City bill, 1028-A, which created a “Sexual Education Task Force” in May of last year. The task force is responsible for assessing the administration of sex education classes in New York City and making recommendations based on the findings. The report and recommendation were originally due on Dec. 1 of last year, but the deadline was missed and there is no estimate for when it will be available to the public. The de Blasio administration did respond to inquiries about the task force report.

The New York City Department of Education does require sexual education in schools, but it has no policy to enforce this, and a report by the New York City Comptroller’s office showed that 12 percent of middle and high schools did not have a instructor assigned to teach health classes. In a survey conducted by the Sexuality Education Alliance of New York City, a coalition “working to improve comprehensive sexuality and health education,” 35 percent of students reported that their school’s health class did not include sexuality education, and 59 did not learn about consent.

"It’s absolutely critical that students learn foundational skills to develop healthy, respectful relationships throughout their lives, and our health education curriculum includes medically accurate, age appropriate lessons on topics like consent, healthy and unhealthy relationships, making safe choices, and setting and respecting boundaries,” said Douglas Cohen, a Department of Education spokesperson. The department offers “expectations” on what sexual health education should consist of, but there is no specification of what topics must be taught in schools and principals have the responsibility to choose the curricula. And unlike at the college level, there is no required definition of consent.

This type of education “needs to start early, it needs to be ongoing,” said Zoe Ridolfi Starr, the co-chairwoman of SEANYC’S policy committee. “Teachers in schools need a lot more information about what sex ed is and requires.”

At the moment, New York City schools only require one semester of health education in middle school and one semester in high school, and compliance is not enforced.

Enforcing legislation is a major challenge – the Department of Education is responsible for the oversight of more than 1,800 schools, the country’s largest school district. This is a challenge “unique and distinct to New York, but this is not an excuse for us to not deal with the problem,” said Aviva Zadoff, who is also a co-chairwoman of SEANYC’s policy committee. “We just have to do it in a way that makes sense for New York City.”

And enforcement is not the only challenge. Others include an inadequate workforce, a lack of preparation by health instructors and limited coordination between the Department of Health and the Education Department, according to advocates.

One of the initiatives to increase the number of licensed health instructor is to certify licensed health professionals to teach health classes, in order to meet the demand for professionals in the state. Another measure to increase the number of health instructors, an “incidental teaching provision,” is already in place. According to DOE data about health education, incidental teaching education “permits teachers to teach one class out of license if they have demonstrated competency in the subject matter.”

But Rachael Peters, executive director at Peer Health Exchange, said this policy undermines student learning because those professionals do not necessarily know how to talk about these issues in a school setting. Peters also said that this policy indicates that the department knows there are not enough health instructors, and opens a door to the conversation in the legislative end of things.

While students and advocates await results from the city’s task force, it is not clear what priority is being given to the implementation and enforcement of sexual health education – and if New York will take action or not.

Fernanda Nunes
is a reporting intern at City & State.
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