Monday, November 30, 2009

sex and the city schools

Ok folks, here's my first foray into writing about something that's not exclusively inner angst and turmoil. We'll see how it goes . . .

Last week, my daughter's middle school hosted a pot luck for new parents—assembling a panel of NYC teachers, assistant principals and guidance counselors who gave presentations on everything from extreme behavorial issues to what to expect during the high school vetting process. As most in the room were parents of relatively well-behaved 11-year-olds, much of the information was beyond what we needed at the moment. We were more interested in how they were functioning in this new environment, what their days were actually like, wanting to get a sense of how this exceedingly diverse fortress of a NYC public school was treating our newly independent, relatively sheltered kids.

And then someone mentioned sex. More specifically, when, and how, is sex education dealt with in sixth grade. The answer? It's not. There's no set curriculum. If a question comes up in, say advisory—a weekly forum 6th graders have with their guidance counselors meant to address time management, bullying, homework pressure—it's dealt with in as perfunctory a manner as possible, quietly and quickly. Apparently, the NYC Department of Education doesn't feel it necessary to educate our kids about reproduction, contraception, or sexual health. Wait, I have to modify that last one, there's a mandatory curriculum about AIDS, but parents are informed well in advance so they can keep their kids home if they don't feel comfortable about them getting that information.

I'm sorry, but what?!

Last year, I waited and waited for the notice letting me know that fifth graders would be seeing the rite-of-passage menstruation film just about everyone I know lived through. Smack in the middle of writing FLOW: the Cultural Story of Menstruation (with Susan Kim), my daughter knew far more than most nine-year-olds did, but I found, talking to her friends, misinformation ran rampant. But, I learned, there was no film. No lecture. No talk with the nurse, the science teacher. No booklets to take home. While I have mixed feeling about femcare companies coming into schools, providing what amounts to an infomercial about their products, providing a forum for education and discussion should be mandatory. But, apparently, the DOE doesn’t feel the same way.

I wonder if anyone from the Department of Education has strolled down 14th Street in Manhattan on a Saturday afternoon, sidewalks packed with girls who barely look old enough to be responsible babysitters, with babies on their hips, toddlers in strollers. I wonder, if kids learned about sex in school, whether they'd make different choices. Maybe, maybe not. They're teenagers after all. But, as a parent, I'd much rather my kids learn in classrooms, from teachers who can provide factual information, than by watching birth control and menstrual suppression ads on TV, gleaning information from misinformed friends, or tragically, developing sexually with no information at all. Living in Greenwich Village, in New York City, it’s shocking to realize we’re moving backwards. This reticence to talk sex in school is nothing but a disserve to our children.


Ben Rubinstein said...

Great post! Yeah, I find it shocking that the mindset is "no information is better than uncomfortable information," with the head-in-the-sand refusal to accept that it will only lead to misinformation. Since when has our public culture become so irrational? Or am I simply being naive in thinking this is new.

Lisa Adams said...

I'll go one further (mother of an 11 year old daughter too, here): Age 11 is when Gardisil is recommended for our daughters. Some doctors, like our pediatrician, recommend waiting until age 12. Either way, we have a vaccine that is aimed, in part, at preventing a sexually transmitted condition.

Yet, I would bet that most questions about the vaccine ("Why do I need it, Mom?") are answered with the explicitly NON-sexual aspects of its use. It would be a good segue into a biological discussion, but again, school, parents, and others prefer not to address it.

Last year's one hour "chat" at school focused on puberty, not sex ed. That is, it dealt with "what's happening to your body" and not "here's what you need to know about once those changes happen." It's always shocking. Parents don't want it talked about at school, but neither are they willing to sit down and do the real "educating" themselves. The culture of mystery continues.

Jeremy said...

I'm guessing that if someone had a coherent argument against sex-ed in the schools, it would go along the lines of something like: "this is something that should be taught at home, when the parents are good and ready to teach it. And if we teach about contraception in the schools, then we're condoning pre-marital sex..." Blah blah blah, the usual social conservative talking points regarding sex ed.

If people even believed this, they would obviously be wrong. But the fact is that (apparently), the most "instruction" kids get at home regarding sex is an uncomfortable, metaphor-filled, very brief discussion, followed by "any questions? no? good."

The schools are pressured by the very few yet very vocal conservatives. The few lucky kids who have involved parents get things explained to them, and all the other kids get bupkis.

And yes, I am still scarred by having to attend that "very special" film with my father in seventh grade.

Lori Zimbardi said...

My daughter watched the film in the 5th grade. That was 5 years ago in CA. I'm glad they did. We talked about it afterward and it was a great conversation that got started without my having to suck it up and give her the "talk" cold turkey. We have had open discussion about sex and having to take care of her sister who is 4yo, according to my teen is "the best birth control ever". We are open about sex at home but it was hard getting there. My sex education was my mom saying to me "sex is a beautiful thing between a man and a woman" and at that my sisters and I said "ewwwww" and got up and walked out of the room. It was never mentioned again. You will love that the day I started my period, I was 12 and had no idea what it was. My mom gave me a pad and said "put this on" and that was it. I had to ask her later if I left it on at night. That was my education.