Happy World Sexual Health Day!

Sexuality is a natural and normal part of being human.  We’ve all heard it before, enough for it to qualify as a truism.  But to what extent does the average person take that to heart, especially when one is enculturated with fear and misinformation?  A recent international synthesis of published data on Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) illustrated that traditional approaches were failing to reach students in a meaningful, productive way due to blurred boundaries, lack of anonymity, failure to address embarrassment, het-cis normativity, unwillingness to acknowledge adolescent sexual activity, and inadequate training.  Participation in negative sex ed can also underscore points of vulnerability for youth, with girls socially conditioned to downplay sexual experience and boys encouraged to hide their own ignorance.  Students reported that SRE was highly gendered, omitted mention of female pleasure, and reduced female sexuality to passivity and lack of desire.  These results highlight a very real need throughout the world for an overhaul of education that is sex-positive, evidence-based, and inclusive.

Puberty is difficult enough to navigate even without major trauma.  Maintaining control and confidentiality in the classroom as well as building trust between students are essential.  Researchers found that teachers who set ground rules for behavior, injected humor into lessons, and protected students from ridicule created a safer, more engaging learning environment.  Furthermore, decades of public health research have shown that comprehensive SRE equips youth with vital facts and skills that enable them to reduce their risk for unwanted pregnancy and STDs.  Therefore, direct and equal access to honest information and supportive adults lays the foundation for optimal sexual health and relationships.

To tackle the potential for alienation and frustration during what is often a turbulent life stage, a local effort spearheaded by Niagara Falls School District (NFSD) Superintendent, Mark Laurrie, and Teacher on Special Assignment and Wellness Coordinator, Scott Wojton, aims to bring sexual education into the 21st century.  Laurrie has always felt that current practices and policies were very outdated, which was confirmed by the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) results in November 2015.  After commissioning a study committee that included nurses and holding multiple fora inviting public and faculty, they met with the Board of Education (BOE) and devised a plan.

Together, they have adapted the age-appropriate curriculum to explore such salient topics as mental health, nutrition, dating violence, gender diversity, and media portrayals of sex.  Alongside community partners such as CCNY, Planned Parenthood (PPWNY), Teal Project, and Native American Community Services (NACS), NFSD seeks to improve the quality, consistency, and availability of sex ed in the region.  PPWNY graciously shared their data with our evaluators to help with this project.  Their Manager of Outreach and Education, Robin Meister, advises any organizations seeking out data of a sensitive nature thusly: “Thoroughly explaining the purpose of research and how the data will be used to participants is important, and, if possible, providing incentives or compensation.  Anything that shows researchers are sensitive to potential feelings of exploitation from participants and approaching data collection respectfully.”

We spoke to Mark (ML), Scott (SW), and Planned Parenthood Health Education and Outreach Supervisor, Lynne Neveu (LN), to learn more about their collective experiences and inspiration for sex ed initiatives.

[This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]

CCNY: What do you think are the most pressing issues in American education today?

ML: Apathy to what a solid education can bring a person.  We live in an instant gratification world, where if something doesn’t come quick and easy, many students do not persist long enough to attain it.  Education requires work, patience, and “stick-to-it-iveness”.  It does not come quick and easy!

SW: Blending the concept of the whole child.  For a school to reach educational capacity with a student, education cannot end at 3:00 PM.  Support from parents, communities, and specific programs such as the NFCSD Healthy Behaviors program are imperative for student success.

CCNY: What does “sex ed” mean to you?  What did it mean when you were children/ adolescents?

ML: Respect for your body and that of another and all of the information that comes with it.  Learning at a developmentally appropriate stage and rate what is appropriate and not appropriate with respect to healthy relationships.  It meant listening to what my parents and teachers told me when I was an adolescent.

SW: Sex ed means understanding the physical and emotional concepts of sexual behavior in my opinion.  For example, at the elementary level, learning about your body, at the PREP or Middle School Level, understanding how choices can affect your future, and at the high school level, the emotional connection involved with sex.  Embedded within the process, abstinence is preached but in the event students do not practice abstinence, understanding of choices/ supports are necessary.  Growing up, sexual education was somewhat of an unspoken concept, teachers and support services were in place but that was the extent of sexual education as an adolescent.

LN: When I was younger, sex education meant a very brief and awkward class filled with stigma and shame.  Now I realize that sex education should be fun and spark open conversations that share factual information and empowers young people to make positive choices for themselves.  The most common misconception is that sexual health education encourages sex.  We teach a heavily researched curriculum shown to delay sex and encourage safer sex.  In my experience, teens want to establish boundaries but don’t know how, so we focus heavily on practicing negotiation skills that they can use in their relationships.

CCNY: In what ways were Niagara Falls’ policies/ sex ed curriculum outdated?  In what ways could it be better?

ML: Teaching abstinence-only was an impractical and outdated strategy for today’s youth.  This is especially true in a city where pregnancy and STD rates are extremely disproportionate.  We need to give factual, direct information.

SW: If there were an area that could be classified as outdated, it’s the belief that abstinence-only instruction was beneficial for NFCSD students.  The Healthy Behaviors team is always looking for ways to improve instruction; the current area of focus is ensuring culturally appropriate content and information for all students.

LN: As an educator, I see firsthand just how vital non-judgmental, accurate sex education is for young people.  Many teens don’t have access to this education and when we don’t teach our young people about their bodies or how to practice safe, responsible sex, we do them a huge disservice.  Teens want to make great choices but we’re not giving them the tools to do so.

CCNY: What inspired you to take on this difficult task?

ML: Inherently, I knew information we were sharing was very dated, but the 2015 YRBS drove home the point.  Along with an obligation to teach students where they are at, not where adults want them to be.

SW: Supporting the needs of NFCSD students.  As Mr. Laurrie highlighted, based upon the YRBS results, it was clear the district needed to take action.

LN: I am an alumna of NFCSD and will never forget my sex ed class. The teacher stuck a piece of tape onto their sweater, ripped it off, and compared the lint left on the adhesive to the contamination of a woman with multiple sexual partners.  “This woman will never be clean again,” they explained, shaming several people in the room who had already become sexually active, including myself.  As soon as I came to work for Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York, I decided I wanted to make a change so that future teens would not feel the shame that I felt.

CCNY: My understanding is that this new set of guidelines is abstinence-based and yet courted a fair amount of “controversy”, how do you respond to those who fought these changes?  How do you outline your case for support when confronted with naysayers?

ML: The use of data cannot be refuted. We have to meet students where they are and we need to listen to the voice of the student body as well.

SW: Overall, I think the program was well received.  [There was] minimal opposition of implementing the program but I view opposition as a positive; it allows for a complete understanding of everyone’s perspective.

CCNY: How did you come to work with CCNY on this project?  What are your thoughts on the infographic created by 12 Grain?

ML: CCNY was referred by a very credible partner at Population Health Collaborative of WNY who has supported the district efforts in a multitude of ways.  The 12 Grain project is outstanding and completely captures the plan in a very easy fashion.

SW: The district wanted to have an outside evaluator ensure program growth.  OUTSTANDING: the infographic clearly represents the “four legs of the table” and the support content of the program.

CCNY: Best case scenario, what do you hope this program will achieve or perhaps precipitate?

ML: Great information and better choices by young adults in the City of Niagara Falls.

SW: Reduction in STD rates, teen pregnancy, and increased/ sustained knowledge of sexual education for all students.

LN: In a dream world, schools in all states would provide age-appropriate sexual health education starting in grade school and continuing through high school.  Curriculum varies so much district-to-district leading to disparities in knowledge.  We need to start early and use an evidence-based approach to create an atmosphere where young people feel equipped to make great choices when it comes to relationships and sex.

CCNY: For the layperson, what is the significance of YRBS in relation to your work?

ML: This is the overarching set of facts that will tell us if we are making a difference with our programming.

SW: It provides the objective to the initiative.  The YRBS provides data that formed a baseline and eventually measure of current sexual education practices of students.

CCNY: Do you have any advice for other educators looking to implement similar reforms?

ML: We listened to the community, parents, staff, and students and held many forums open to the public to garner feedback.  From there, specific decisions needed to be made and a plan set, which is continuously evaluated.  Listening to students’ voices is key.

SW: Being transparent and sharing the needs of students based upon data.  Mr. Laurrie devised a plan to create, implement, and sustain appropriate healthy behaviors education for all students.  To implement similar reforms, you need to have data to support the reform as well as collaborate with community partners and internal staff members.  And finally, be transparent with district leadership including the BOE.

CCNY: Do you have hopes for NFSD’s success to be a model for other school systems and communities?

ML: Absolutely, we need to impact and change one student at a time.  Most importantly, we need stamina to stick with this initiative.

SW: YES!  Ultimately we’re trying to support the needs of students, if the NFCSD model can be embedded or modeled in supporting districts, we’re helping students.

Nearly half of all Niagara Falls High School (NFHS) students report being sexually active and not using a condom during their last sexual encounter.  Despite being more likely than other NYS students to learn about HIV and AIDS in school, NFHS students are also more likely to have had multiple sexual partners (defined as having had sexual intercourse with four or more partners) and to have had sex for the first time before age 13 than their counterparts throughout the state.  Although the new sex ed program is abstinence-based and led by certified teachers, there is still an opt-out form available for concerned parents and guardians.

A curriculum that is stuck in the past harms not only students but also the children they may eventually go on to have.  The digital age has brought new challenges and discussions to the fore, including but not limited to hypersexualization of minors, sexting, cyberbullying, gender fluidity, and that indispensable core component of all healthy relationships: consent.  A class on the basics of reproduction has no real-world value without teaching respect and responsibility.  For example, safe sex now must include safe technology use and information-sharing.  Moreover, a well-rounded approach necessitates embedding sexual health in students’ conversations and not relegating it to a single class.

We applaud our interviewees for their dedication to students, their wellbeing, and their commitment to promoting healthy body images and judicious decision-making.  By setting an example of clear, open communication about a subject that has historically been cloaked in shame, anxiety, and denial, these educators are doing their part to build a healthier, happier community.