Home The Washington Diplomat January 2009 Birds and Bees Are Back

Birds and Bees Are Back


D.C. Schools Join Maryland In Tackling Taboos of Sex Ed

Just before a 22-year-old D.C. woman died from complications related to HIV a few years ago, staff members at Metro TeenAIDS, a local advocacy group, asked her how much she was taught in school about the disease and related sexual health issues.

“What she said is, ‘I got 10 minutes in 10th grade and that was not enough,’” recalled Adam Tenner, executive director of Metro TeenAIDS and a member of the D.C. Healthy Youth Coalition.

The statement became a powerful reminder that sex ed can equip youngsters with needed knowledge they may not get elsewhere — and that in the nation’s capital, known as the HIV epicenter of the United States, instruction for years has been largely nonexistent or inconsistent in schools.

Thankfully, experts say, that’s changing drastically.

Sex ed generally covers lessons ranging from human anatomy, reproduction, intercourse, contraception, and other health and behavioral topics. Subject matter can vary widely though, and in particular, the issue of emphasizing abstinence over condoms and other forms of contraception has long been a source of heated debate in communities across the country.

The first major step toward increased sexual health curriculum in the area was when Maryland’s Montgomery County ended years of court battles over controversial teachings for eighth- and 10th-graders about such topics as condom usage and transgender individuals.

As of spring 2008, Maryland officials gave the green light for the lessons to see the light of educational day, and they’re now being taught to all students in those grades except students who ask to be exempted.

And this fall, schools in D.C. became the latest in the region to add comprehensive sex education to the classroom. The move was a direct result of the State Board of Education’s decision one year ago to pass a set of health standards for all students from kindergarten up to the end of their high school careers.

Kristin Yochum, special assistant to D.C. State Superintendent Deborah Gist, said the standards serve as a framework. From there, schools formulate curriculum tailored carefully to their population so long as it meets the criteria.

“Standards detail what students should know and learn from every grade level,” she explained. “They run the full spectrum from proper hygiene to sex ed.”

Standards have been employed for subjects such as math and science for some time, ensuring that the objectives match up for teachers throughout the system. Health simply hadn’t been given the same treatment until this last step.

Most exciting to Tenner and others that work with HIV-infected youth is that students across the city can now receive access to the same types of information.

“The drumbeat that I keep sounding is equity. For so long, some students were getting good teachings and others weren’t just because of where they were,” he said. “What I believe all of this will accomplish is that we’ll see an overall increase in quality HIV education.”

To meet the health standards this first year, D.C. school officials essentially took several established lesson plans and adapted them, according to Yochum.

As the school year goes on, content experts will be brought in to assess how it’s working and to come up with original curriculum that can be weaved into classrooms. In that sense, the material is “a work in progress,” Tenner says. “So if new research comes out, it can be incorporated,” he noted.

At this point, elementary school children’s health lessons come from a model called “Making a Difference,” while middle school students work under a program called “Making Proud Choices” and high schoolers under “Be a Responsible Teen.”

The biggest difference with the elementary school curriculum is that it has a purely abstinence focus and has been proven nationally to make a major impact when those involved are not yet sexually active. The middle and high school teachings, in contrast, “start and end with abstinence” but also provide information on reproductive health and protection for those students who are engaging in sex.

“What those two curriculum do goes beyond teaching kids to use condoms,” Tenner pointed out. “It teaches them to think about their futures and where they want to go — how HIV would get in the way of them reaching their potential. The most tragic thing for us has been understanding that you have to give kids a good reason not to have HIV and get pregnant.”

One classroom activity he cited that’s resonated extremely well with students is called “Tell it to Tyrone,” in which students sit in chairs back to back and take turns trying to solve hypothetical scenarios they could encounter with regard to sex or their futures. Tenner insists the exercise allows them to bring a sense of control and reality into the classroom, which is critical in carrying the lessons over into their everyday experiences.

Based on recent research conducted for Metro TeenAIDS by Zogby International, the push toward increased sex ed is exactly what parents in the region are craving. Of the parents polled during the fall, 93 percent said they think that preventing unintended pregnancies and HIV begins with comprehensive sex education. Similarly, 83 percent of parents acknowledged that D.C. schools are responsible for taking on this sex education.

Some parents in the area, and across the country, still favor an abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum — an approach strongly supported by the Bush administration, which has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to boost such programs, both here and abroad. But opponents — many in the medical professional — argue that such programs only harm young people with misinformation and lack of life-saving knowledge, disputing claims that comprehensive sex education encourages teens to have premarital sex.

The tide may be turning nationwide on the debate over abstinence versus safe sex education. During the U.S. presidential campaign, the issue came up in political ads against Democratic nominee Barack Obama when it was erroneously reported that the former Illinois senator wanted to provide comprehensive sex ed to kindergartners, going so far as to say that Obama hoped to teach kindergarten pupils about sex before they could read.

That information has since been widely discredited — the kindergarten reference actually dealt with preventing childhood abuse by sexual predators — and President-elect Obama has said he’s committed to expanded funding for science-based sexual health education as part of his national agenda.

Experts like Tenner say it’s hard to determine at this point how Obama’s pledge will trickle down to individual schools and systems, but to those pushing for more resources in the area of HIV prevention and sex education, his victory seems to be a positive development.

“He’s made a number of promises about being committed to HIV globally,” Tenner said. “And what I’ve been hearing at conferences is that science is being un-handcuffed; we’re returning to the belief that science is useful. It’s a much better environment for us.”

About the Author

Dena Levitz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.