Yasmeen Khan is a reporter covering education. You can find her stories on the air and on SchoolBook.org, WNYC’s education website.
Truth or myth?
Girls can't get pregnant the first time they have sex. (Myth.)
Using a latex condom correctly every time you have sexual intercourse is very effective in preventing H.I.V. (Truth.)
Now that New York City has mandated lessons on sexual health, starting this semester students in health classes may go through similar exercises in truths vs. myths when talking about preventing pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. During a unit on abstinence, they may role-play a situation where a student resists pressure to have sex. Or they may read about developing healthy relationships and raising self-esteem.
Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott announced in August that public middle schools and high schools would be required to fold sex education lessons into existing health classes, which already cover topics like nutrition, physical activity and preventing injuries.
New York State requires that students receive at least a semester of health education in either sixth or seventh grade and again in either ninth or 10th grade. But those health classes didn't have to include sex education.
Some districts took extra steps, and many schools voluntarily added sexual health to their curriculums, including here in New York City. But not all of them. That led to concerns by advocates of sex education, including Planned Parenthood, that the city lacked a consistent approach.
The new sex education mandate takes effect this spring term, which begins on Tuesday for high school students.
What will be taught?
The city's Department of Education does not mandate that schools use a certain curriculum, but it does recommend one: HealthSmart for middle school students. For high school students, it recommends HealthSmart alongside a book called "Reducing the Risk."
The Education Department tailored the national versions for New York City, so that the materials would not overlap with existing lessons on H.I.V. New York State already requires that all schools provide education on H.I.V./AIDS for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
City education officials offer guidelines on what should be covered as part of sexual health education.
Depending on the child's grade, topics would include physiology and understanding the male and female reproductive systems; recognizing healthy and unhealthy relationships; sexuality and sexual identity; handling unwanted sexual advances; the benefits of abstinence; birth control methods; and preventing sexually transmitted diseases.
For instance, in a lesson on abstinence in HealthSmart, one worksheet asks students to write a letter to a sixth-grade student explaining why he or she should wait to have sex. In the curriculum's unit on sexuality, the teacher's manual asks that teachers welcome questions and "demonstrate openness and acceptance" with words, tone and facial expressions.
Teachers may verbalize how to use condoms correctly. Condom demonstrations are only allowed in health resource rooms in high schools.
Lessons are meant to be co-ed.
What parts of the curriculum can (or cannot) parents opt out of?
Some parent groups have criticized the city's new policy, saying it is too graphic or that they would prefer abstinence-only lessons. Parents who object to lessons on birth control and preventing S.T.D.'s can write a letter to their child's principal to opt out of some classes. The letter must stipulate that students will receive that instruction at home.
Parents cannot opt out of lessons on abstinence or sexual health education.
Education officials say it is up to schools to communicate with parents about what is being taught and when. Principals must send a notification letter about the new sex education mandate home.
Who will teach these classes?
In middle and high schools, health classes must be taught by a licensed health teacher. Education officials say the department's Office of School Wellness Programs is providing free training on the recommended sex education curriculum to teachers and administrators.