Given that New York City was one of the first places in the U.S. where the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit in the early '80s, one would think that its public schools would be ahead of the curve in teaching its students everything about the birds and the bees—from condom use and birth control to STIs. While the city doesn't share the same strict abstinence-only mentality that more conservative cities in the U.S. do, up until now sex ed has been done on a voluntary basis at each school. If the school wanted to have comprehensive sex education, it would, and if it didn't, it wouldn't. Under this policy, it's been estimated that 64 percent of the city's middle schools and somewhere between 40 to 80 percent of high schools teach any type of sex-education curriculum.
When you think about it, that's a lot of kids who are not getting the lifesaving information they need—especially teens of color.
Well, starting this fall that is all going to be changing. This week, Mayor Bloomberg's office announced that starting the 2011 to 2012 school year, for the first time in almost 20 years, all public school students in middle and high schools will be required to receive comprehensive sex education. (Note: Parents do have the right to opt their children out of lessons on birth control.)
New York City’s new mandate goes beyond the state’s requirement that middle and high school students take one semester of health education classes. The city’s mandate calls for schools to teach a semester of sex education in 6th or 7th grade, and again in 9th or 10th grade, suggesting they use HealthSmart and Reducing the Risk, out-of-the-box sets of lessons that have been recommended since 2007. A city survey of principals last year found that 64 percent of middle schools were using the HealthSmart curriculum.
Time reported that this mandate also plays hand in hand with the city's new $127 million Young Men's Initiative in hopes to better the lives of young men of color in the city. The city is also hoping that this mandate will address the racial and economic disparities among HIV/AIDS and STI rates in the city. They wrote:
City officials hope that the sex-ed mandate will reach teens of color, who have disproportionately high rates of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). "It's obviously something that applies to all boys and all girls," Linda I. Gibbs, the New York City's deputy mayor for health and human services told the New York Times. "But when we look at the biggest disadvantages that kids in our city face, it is Blacks and Latinos that are most affected by the consequences of early sexual behavior and unprotected sex."
Indeed, according to the latest data [PDF] from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the five city neighborhoods with the highest rates of chlamydia among teens aged 15 to 19 were also some of the poorest: Crotona, Central Harlem, Mott Haven, the Northeast Bronx and East Harlem. Neighborhoods with the highest rates of gonorrhea, another common STI, were similarly disadvantaged.
While the reaction seems mixed among some groups and parents, who believe that the city is overstepping its boundaries in what is a family issue, other HIV/AIDS, public health and reproductive health groups believe that this is a step in the right direction. TheBody.com reported:
In a press release, Tracie M. Gardner, state policy director at the Legal Action Center and the founder of WISH-NY said, "While this new mandate is a start, we hope that it's not the final word from the city.... As we all have been saying for years, meaningful, medically sound health education needs to be a continuous process, and one semester is far from that."
YWCHAC Co-director Kymsha Henry added: "As advocates, we are so happy to hear this—but it's not really time to celebrate until the rates of HIV and STIs among New York's young people decrease. Chancellor Walcott and Deputy Mayor Gibbs, let's make this happen now."
Yes, let's make this happen for our youth, because they really need it. If only this could be the model for the entire country....
(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)