By Erin Roach
A new sex education mandate by the New York City Department of Education has drawn opposition from parents, congressmen and representatives of the True Love Waits abstinence movement.
Starting in January, the city will require students to take one semester of sex education in the sixth or seventh grade and one in ninth or 10th grade. Schools can choose the curriculum, but the city recommends a program called HealthSmart and another called Reducing the Risk, according to the New York Daily News.
HealthSmart in particular contains graphic lessons which many parents find objectionable, including assignments that would have students cataloguing condom brands at a local drug store, visiting a reproductive health clinic and browsing a provocative sex advice website.
True Love Waits, meanwhile, is advocating an abstinence option in New York City schools.
“Although True Love Waits is not directly involved in school abstinence programs, our team has long recognized that education is the first step in leading students to make a commitment to refrain from sex until marriage,” True Love Waits spokesperson Dawn Cornelius said.
“We owe it to students to give them a positive message about the benefits of remaining abstinent until they get married, and to warn them about the physical and emotional consequences that can result from premarital sex,” Cornelius said in a statement circulated Nov. 3.
New York State law protects a parent’s right to opt children out of any health and hygiene classes, including sex education, which conflict with the religious beliefs of the parent. The law also allows a parent to opt children out of all HIV/AIDS education through a written request to the principal if the children instead will be taught at home.
“It’s wrong to force [parents] to choose between what the city is planning and no sex education at all. Parents who want a more traditional, abstinence-based sex education curriculum for their children should be able to have that,” said former Democratic assemblyman Michael Benjamin, who is leading an opposition group called the NYC Parents’ Choice Coalition.
The Daily News said Reps. Michael Grimm and Bob Turner, New York City’s two Republican congressmen, are supporting concerned parents who want an abstinence-based alternative curriculum.
Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, pointed to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which said nearly 75 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds in the United States have not had sex.
“Why would we not support programs that reinforce those good decisions?” Huber told Baptist Press. “The NYC mandate avoids any priority on sexual risk avoidance, which is a mistake from a public health standpoint and from a scientific standpoint. It is an affront to the teens who want to make good decisions but are looking for adults to empower them in that pursuit.”
New York City, Huber said, has a problem with sexual activity rates, sexually transmitted disease rates and other risk behaviors among teenagers. The new mandate is part of a broader strategy the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in August to improve the lives of black and Latino teenagers.
“Do educational leaders really think that mandating more of the same style of sex education that has been standard fare for years will somehow improve the situation?” Huber said.
“Research shows that at-risk students are especially resonant to the sexual risk avoidance message of abstinence education. Many are weary of the current advantage discrimination that sends them the clear message that they are incapable of making healthy decisions,” she added. “If NYC is insistent upon mandating sex education in their schools, then students (and their parents) should be permitted to select from an option that offers the best chance of optimal health.”
Under pressure, the New York City Department of Education redacted parts of the HealthSmart program that included flashcards for middle school students explaining various sex acts, the Daily News reported Oct. 29. A city survey of principals last year found that 64 percent of middle schools were using the HealthSmart curriculum, according to The New York Times.
The Parents’ Choice Coalition is urging concerned parents to opt their children out of the mandated curriculum, and the group provides a sample opt-out letter on their website, nycparentschoice.org.
Also, parents can sign a petition circulated by the Parents’ Choice Coalition as well as call and email Mayor Bloomberg and the city’s Department of Education. The group provides a sample letter that parents can use to request an alternative curriculum, such as one of 22 abstinence education curricula which have been demonstrated to be effective in peer-reviewed studies.
To spread the word about the need to intervene, parents can follow the Parents’ Choice Coalition on Twitter or join their Facebook page, and they can read the group’s blog.
As noted by the coalition: “If there are curricula which have been shown to have positive results with respect to the universally-acknowledged primary prevention goal of delaying sexual debut, and the content of which is not offensive to parents, as the content of the city’s recommended curricula is, why can’t New York parents have one of these programs as an alternative that provides their children with needed information and encourages them to make the healthiest decisions?” — Erin Roach, assistant editor of Baptist Press