Brian Sullivan: Sex education classes need no tweaking
I looked around and noticed she wasn't there. It was homeroom during the first week of my senior year at Pittsfield High. We weren't great friends, or anything like that, but we had gone through elementary and junior high together, and since our last names both started with S we had shared ho me room class for a couple of years. They placed us alphabetically.
Had the family moved? No, because I saw her younger brother in the hallways during the day.
It took about half the school year before I figured out the girl had become pregnant over the summer and wouldn't be joining us for our final ride on the high school carousel. I never heard her name mentioned in any conversation. She just sort of disappeared.
There was no reason to talk about it. I guess that was the order of the day. If memory serves, the entire thing was swept conveniently under the rug. Why talk to the students about it? It might give them ideas, or worse, they might have questions. But do you know what? I neither had questions nor did I want an explanation from some health teacher offering greater understanding about morals, feelings and how the human body works.
I just wanted to know that she was OK.
But that was then and this is now. And the now means that girls in their teens are allowed to take high school classes in their pregnant state basically until such time when walking up the stairs becomes problematic. Then, after what hopefully is a smooth and safe delivery, they are apt to return to visit the school with their newborns and bask in the adulation of peers and staff, who gush over their tiny bundle of joy.
This kind of positive reinforcement is sometimes enough to validate the entire process and may serve as an inspiration for others to go the same route. It's a beautiful thing.
At the request of a couple of Taconic High female students and some advocates, the school committee recently verbally signed off on an agenda to review and perhaps rip apart and rebuild the sex education classes offered to our city students. The THS duo called the current curriculum inadequate and irrelevant. They asked for a class that students would take seriously and one that includes specific information about abortion, contraception devices and Plan B pills, whatever the heck they are, although I think I have an idea.
Can you say fat chance? I give that class about two weeks before the parents of scores of students start knocking down the doors on East Street and Valentine Road looking for answers. This, of course, will occur on the heels of the kids coming home and telling Mom and Dad about everything they learned in sex ed class today.
"So, Mom, there's this abortion clinic in Albany that's really high quality and safe. All the kids go there."
Holy Captain Kangaroo! Are we losing our minds? Some of this stuff, by the way, borders dangerously close to religious philosophies and brings that into play. And we all know religion and public education do not sit in the same section of the upper deck. In this case, they're not even at the same game.
What's being offered to our students are health classes that are broad-based and cover a number of topics over the 10-month school year. They are not necessarily sex ed classes with an emphasis on preventing teen pregnancy. The classes are both adequate and relevant. And while it may not be in-your-face teaching, teen pregnancy is addressed. The classes also cover alcohol and drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases. If the ninth- and 10th-grade students can't find the inner discipline to take those subjects seriously, then what leads anyone to believe they will do anything but suppress nervous giggles when the subject of sexual relations between teens turns a bit more graphic?
And don't even think about taking a more detailed class into the middle schools. This is not a good idea. In fact, it's a bad idea. Again, any parent worth his or her salt ain't buying into that plan. But, if they are, then maybe it would be wise to first have "the talk" with their own kids. Ditto for the parents of high-schoolers.
Sorry folks, but there is no one-size-fits-all presentation for sex ed at the middle or high school levels. Do you know how many layers of maturity you're looking at between the ages of 13 and 16? Oh, about 1,000, I would guess. No matter what you try you're going to have one tune in and three tune out.
One of the Taconic students told the school committee that, and I paraphrase, it might be something of a shock to come to grips with the idea that this generation of teens is sexually active. But that's the reality, she concluded.
An eyebrow-raiser? Hardly. This generation isn't acting any differently than the one before this, and the one before that, and the one before that, and the one before. We've had cars for 100 years, which means we've had backseats for just as long.
Public school systems do their communities a great service by providing health classes that are both meaningful and informative. If a student feels that he or she needs something more, then try mom or dad, your primary care physician, or contact one of the many agencies in the area that have professionals who can be a bit more up front, literal and discreet.
I'm sorry, kids, but public schools are not the appropriate place to hold the kind of detail-oriented discussions some of you are looking for. Quite frankly, our school committee has better things to do. And so do the students, who would do well to focus on readin', writin', and ‘rithmetic. If classes like health (sex ed) and physical education were really that important, then school districts would schedule them five times a week instead of once or twice.
When that changes, let me know. In the meantime, it's safe to say that balancing equations is more important than balancing hormones.
One final thought, and I hope this helps. When in doubt, just say no. You would be surprised at how effective that strategy can be and how quickly the teen birth percentage will drop.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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