Most school districts in the state have “disappointing” sexual education curricula that contain outdated information, promote gender stereotypes and often don’t address same-sex relationships, the New York Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday.
The NYCLU unveiled an analysis of the sex education programs of 108 school districts outside New York City.
The organization requested the 2009-10 and 2010-11 curricula of school districts through the Freedom of Information Act. Local school districts that responded include Schenectady, Shenendehowa, Gloversville, Amsterdam, Albany, Coblesville-Richmondville and South Glens Falls.
NYCLU recommends that comprehensive sex education be required in all the state’s public schools. Comprehensive sex education covers many topics, including abstinence, condom use, birth control, relationships and the reproductive anatomy.
But Maureen Silfer of Shenendehowa Parents Choice Coalition, a group of parents and Clifton Park and Halfmoon community members who advocate for abstinence education, contends the NYCLU’s analysis ignores a July Congressional report that said abstinence education is superior to comprehensive sex education.
“Their purpose is to set health policy and educational policy,” Silfer said of the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s health subcommittee. “The report states that [sexual risk avoidance] education is superior to comprehensive sex education based on empirical evidence and sound theory.”
Sex education has been a controversial topic in the past year in the Shenendehowa Central School District, after a group of parents who favor abstinence education asked the district to stop inviting Planned Parenthood to teach a seminar in health classes and asked the district to change its sex education curriculum to an abstinence model.
District officials spent months analyzing the issue and last month the Board of Education approved new guidelines that leave the door open for teachers to invite outside speakers but also emphasize the importance of abstinence.
The Congressional report said that abstinence education results in lower rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. The NYCLU report says the opposite, that getting comprehensive sex education lowers the rates of teen pregnancy and infection.
The abstinence-based curriculum focuses on relationships and decision-making skills. People who favor this approach argue that emotionally supported children who are given more facts and knowledge won't have sex.
Those who favor comprehensive sex education often argue that many teenagers are having sex and are going to continue to do so even if adults tell them not to, so they need information to prevent the unwanted consequences of sex.
“Whatever we may think of teen sexual activities, teenagers are having sex, lots of it,” Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, said during a telephone conference Wednesday announcing their report.
A majority of parents want comprehensive sex education taught in schools, Lieberman said.
The report, which analyzes thousands of pages of school curricula, highlights statements and handouts that the organization said give incorrect information, promote gender stereotypes and marginalize gay, lesbian and transgender people.
For example, while most schools used diagrams that showed external male genitalia, most worksheets for females showed only the internal reproductive system.
“One district defined the penis as a ‘sperm gun’ and described the vagina as ‘penis fits in here,’ ” the report stated.
Diagrams of the brain that appear to make an attempt at humor portray girls as focused on shopping, “listening,” and commitment while boys think only about sex. A mock hazardous materials data sheet describes women as “the most powerful money reducing agent known to man” and “highly ornamental, especially in sports cars.”
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are marginalized or ignored in sex education textbooks and most classroom materials, Lieberman said.
“This isn’t fair to our kids or their families, and it’s not responsible education,” she said.
Currently, sex education is voluntary in the state’s school districts. Certain information about HIV and AIDS is required to be taught, but whether districts teach anything else is up to them.
The state Education Department does have voluntary curriculum guidelines for school districts to follow if they want to teach sex education.
The NYCLU wants comprehensive sex education to be required or to change the voluntary guidelines to bring them in line with up-to-date comprehensive sex education. The organization plans to lobby for changes at the state level, and officials hope that parents and teachers lobby their schools also.
“There’s a lot that people outside the halls of government can and must do,” said Melissa Goodman, NYCLU senior litigation and policy counsel.
The state Education Department plans to look at the report, said Dennis Tompkins, chief of external affairs.
“We’ll carefully review the report and its recommendations. Our goal is to make sure students get accurate, sound health information,” he said in a news release.