The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) has just released its annual summary of sexuality education controversies, a sampler of clashing viewpoints from around the nation. The 2011–12 school year brought the typical array of controversies over sexuality education in public and private schools, along with exciting news of new sexuality-education standards. These could potentially change the terms of the debate around sex ed.
Students went back to school in 2011 under a cloud of political assaults on sexual rights, following lopsided 2010 Tea Party election victories. In statehouses across the nation, and in local school districts, opponents of comprehensive sexuality education were organizing to roll back earlier gains in policy, programming, and access to educational resources. Perhaps the best-known example occurred in Wisconsin. The ink had barely dried on the state’s Healthy Youth Act when a newly-conservative legislative majority acted to repeal the law and impose a return to failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed the repeal measure into law along with a raft of other anti-rights provisions to restrict abortion and permit companies to discriminate in paying women less than men for equal work.
Advocates for sounder sexuality education found themselves in a standoff with a highly organized and well-financed movement that was determined to undo years of work aimed at benefiting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. In places as dissimilar as Utah, Washington State, and Tennessee, the opposition decried medically-accurate, inclusive sexuality education as the equivalent of bullying, alcohol abuse, rape, or “gateway drugs.”
Not all battles were waged at the statehouse level. Conservative opponents spent the 2011–12 school year attacking comprehensive sexuality education wherever they found opportunities—including local school districts in such ‘liberal’ bastions as New York State.
The Shenendehowa Central Schools of Clifton Park were the scene of a controversy over the local Planned Parenthood affiliate’s role in sexuality education. Sexual health topics had been taught as a ten-day unit during eighth-grade health class, and again in either junior or senior year. After learning that Planned Parenthood Mohawk-Hudson had long provided guest presenters for Shenendehowa middle- and high- school classrooms, a group of local abstinence-only activists formed the Shen Parents’ Choice Coalition to demand an end to this arrangement. Bowing to the opposition, Schools’ Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson ordered the cancellation of all Planned Parenthood appearances in Shenendehowa schools.
He made the decision despite the fact that Planned Parenthood Mohawk-Hudson had a 20-year relationship with the school district, providing guest instructors and supplemental training for teen sexual-health advocates. The group’s work in 12 other upstate New York school districts, involving 46 public schools, had not generated any significant opposition until that point.
As the controversy continued, more than 60 residents turned out for a Saturday-morning forum in which opposition leaders complained about the current program and presented their ideas for an “alternative” sexuality-education curriculum. Emily Sederstrand, for example, insisted that Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson materials and educational methods were causing emotional damage to students. “This is a type of sexual harassment going on,” she said. “It’s bullying.”
District spokesperson Kelly DeFeciani said that, as a result of the controversy, the district would ask its 18-member Health Advisory Council to review the existing sexuality-education curriculum. The advisory council included school personnel as well as community representatives, such as Maureen Silfer, a vocal family-planning opponent who first raised an issue with the curriculum after her daughter brought it home.
Despite the attacks from family-planning opponents, by June 2012 the needs of students had prevailed when the Health Advisory Council issued its recommendations. The council advised the school district to welcome Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson back into classrooms. It also recommended that the district begin general-health education earlier—in sixth grade rather than in eighth grade—and begin sexuality instruction in grade 10 rather than in grades 11 or 12. It also said sexual identity and orientation should be included as topics in the curriculum beginning with the current 2012–13 school year.
This was a clear defeat for the opposition. Silfer had already resigned from the Health Advisory Council by May 2012, complaining that the curriculum-review process was not objective. As for the final recommendations for 2012–2013, she groused, “It’s the same curriculum we have been fighting since last May.”
Another highlight from the past school year was the release, in January 2012, of the new National Sexuality Education Standards: Core Content and Skills, K–12. SIECUS joined other leading health organizations to develop these first-ever national standards for sexuality education in schools. The standards were created to address a long-standing need for clear, consistent, and straightforward guidance on the essential minimum, core content for sexuality education that is developmentally and age-appropriate for students at each grade level.
But even these voluntary national standards generated controversy. Glenn Beck’s sulfurous conservative blog, The Blaze, accompanied its coverage with photos of very young children and a quote from Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association: “This should be a program about health, rather than agendas that have nothing to do with optimal sexual health decision-making … Controversial topics are best reserved for conversations between parent and child, not in the classroom.”
Opponents of medically-accurate, inclusive sexuality education may insist on banishing controversial topics from America’s classrooms. But we know that quality education on any subject includes the opportunity to discuss, debate, and think critically about current events as they affect us in the real world. Let’s stand with young people who seek the best education—including sexuality education—their schools can provide.