NYC public school students not receiving mandated sex education in schools
41 percent of middle schools students are not getting sex education in school, experts say it’s more than just sex ed
A visibly upset teenager approached Anthony Horne after his sexual health class at a high school in the Bronx. She told him she had recently contracted an STD, something that had come as a surprise to the young student.
“She didn’t think it could happen to her,” said Horne, who serves as the Health Educator Supervisor at BronxWorks, an organization that helps individuals and families improve their economic and social well-being.
Despite her concern, the young girl expressed how happy she was to be able to come to the intervention class and talk to Horne about where she can get help.
“Her reaction is the reason why these programs need to exist,” Horne said.
Horne was reminded of why sexual health education is crucial, especially in communities of color like the South Bronx where he works.
New York Cith, however, still lags far behind the nation in sex education in both middle and high schools.
New York State mandates sex education by certified instructors for all students in grades 6 to 12. But, New York City has fallen short of this requirement, according to a scathing new report by Comptroller Scott Stringer.
As a result, young people in the city are more likely to pick up sexually transmitted diseases and get pregnant.
“The Bronx has some of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state,” Horne said. “Teen pregnancy has declined nationally, but the rate of teen pregnancy here has remained stable.”
Teen pregnancy rates in the Bronx remain the highest in the state for females 15–19 years old. Teenagers accounted for 77 pregnancies per 1,000 in the Bronx while there are 54.4 teen pregnancies per 1,000 in the city overall.
While the South Bronx stands out against the national and state average, New York City’s lack of sexual health education has plagued the middle schools and high schools in all boroughs.
Only 59 percent of eighth-grade students have completed the New York State mandated health education requirement, which includes sex education.
The New York State Department of Education (NYSED) requires one semester of comprehensive health education for all middle school students in grades 6–8.
Yet, 29 of the 51 City Council districts had less than 60 percent of their eighth-grade students enrolled in the mandated health instruction last school year.
“New York City’s school-based instruction of sexual health education (or sex ed) is inconsistent and out of date compared to other major American cities,” the reports found.
And the city is also far behind its peers. Schools in Boston, Chicago, and schools in Broward County, Florida place a particular emphasis on training teachers and providing sexual health education in their classrooms. These systems also hold schools accountable by monitoring sex ed enrolment.
Seventy-two percent of middle schools in New York City have no instructors assigned to teach sexual health classes, according to the report.
“It is very important to start sex education with students early,” said Horne. “Information that helps to improve social emotional awareness and learn should start in the pre-teen years.”
The teen pregnancy rate has been declining across New York State, but rates among teens in the city remain the highest in the state, even though unintended teen pregnancies in the city were down 53 percent according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“Our communities defy the national average,” said Horne.
The poorest neighborhoods in the city are found in the Bronx where the majority of residents make below $20,000, according to the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. And a third of the schools with substandard health instruction programs are in the borough too.
This report comes at a time when New York City teenagers are experiencing an increase in teen pregnancy rates, STI incidents, and dating violence.
The report also found that LGBTQ youth are more likely to attempt suicide and substance and are at increased risk of homelessness.
These findings provide a basis for understanding that sex ed classes in school stretch far beyond students learning anatomy and safe sex.
“Our programs address bullying, which is often related to issues around gender and body image,” said Jennifer Rogers, a health educator at Health Connected, a nonprofit providing comprehensive sexual health education programs to students and families
Comprehensive sex education in New York City includes learning about HIV/AIDS, sexual health, drug use violence prevention, mental health, and nutrition. Health educations curriculum also teaches relationship management, stress management, and advocacy skills, according to the NYSED.
“Pre-teens that have strong social-emotional awareness are better equipped to negotiate sexual debut in a positive and assertive way,” said Horne.
Schools with the less than 10 percent of eighth-grade students enrolled in a health instruction class are located in Manhattan. But, the majority of schools with less than 33 percent of eighth-grade students are located throughout the Bronx.
“In communities where poverty and other issues take priority, if you’re concern is staying alive, teen pregnancy is low on the totem pole,” said Horne.
Despite declines in recent years, the national average for teen pregnancies remains relatively high, a trend that has reflected in New York State for the past two decades.
“The data shows that young people should be prepared two to three years in advances to make decisions,” Rogers said. “We want to prepare young people in advanced so they can feel prepared and confident and to that, they aren’t learning the information as they are going through it.”
One group of students decided to study the matter themselves. They surveyed 300 of their peers and came up with findings similar to the comptroller.
“The majority of us had been in relationships by the time sex ed was taught,” on New York City high school student reported.
The survey found that 59 percent of students had not learned about consent in schools or elsewhere.
Sixty-three percent of students did not learn about gender identity and expression in school or elsewhere, and educators say ignoring this issue is a mistake.
“Mixed gendered programs demystify what’s going on with other genders,” Rogers said. “We know there are more than two genders and we want to recognize that. When we say there’s the boy’s room, and there’s the girl’s room we aren’t representing gender diversity.”
A study by the CDC found that health risks among LGBTQ youth tend to be higher and contribute to attempted suicide, alcohol and tobacco abuse, sexually transmitted infections, and weight management disorders. The study recommends school aim to reduce risk through sexual health education that is more inclusive of the LGBTQ experience.
“We need to go beyond heteronormative norms,” said another student.
The New York City Council passed legislation in May to review the state of sexual health education in schools and offer recommendations for improvements.
“Without this education students rely on friends and the internet,” said Rogers. “And the internet is not reliable.”
“We need to remove the taboo around this conversation.”