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Elissa Stein Headshot

Sex and the City Schools

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Last week, my daughter's middle school hosted a pot luck for new parents--assembling a panel of NYC teachers, assistant principals and guidance counselors who gave presentations on everything from extreme behavorial issues to what to expect during the high school vetting process. As most in the room were parents of relatively well-behaved 11-year-olds, much of the information was beyond what we needed at the moment. We were more interested in how they were functioning in this challenging environment, what their days were actually like, wanting to get a sense of how this exceedingly diverse fortress of a NYC public school was treating our newly independent, relatively sheltered kids.

And then someone mentioned sex. More specifically, when, and how, is sex education dealt with in sixth grade. The answer? It's not. There's no set curriculum. If a question comes up in, say advisory--a weekly forum 6th graders have with their guidance counselors meant to address time management, bullying, homework pressure--it's dealt with in as perfunctory a manner as possible, quietly and quickly. Apparently, the NYC Department of Education doesn't feel it necessary to educate our kids about reproduction, contraception, or sexual health. Wait, I have to modify that last one, there's a mandatory curriculum about AIDS, but parents are informed well in advance so they can keep their kids home if they don't feel comfortable about them getting that information.

I'm sorry, but what?!

Last year, I waited and waited for the notice letting me know that fifth graders would be seeing the rite-of-passage menstruation film just about everyone I know lived through. Smack in the middle of writing FLOW: the Cultural Story of Menstruation (with Susan Kim), my daughter knew far more than most nine-year-olds did, but I found, talking to her friends, misinformation ran rampant. But, I learned, there was no film. No lecture. No talk with the nurse, the science teacher. No booklets to take home. While I have mixed feeling about femcare companies coming into schools, providing what amounts to an infomercial about their products, providing a forum for education and discussion should be mandatory. But, apparently, the DOE doesn't feel the same way.

I wonder if anyone from the Department of Education has strolled down 14th Street in Manhattan on a Saturday afternoon, sidewalks packed with girls who barely look old enough to be responsible babysitters, with babies on their hips, toddlers in strollers. I wonder, if kids learned about sex in school, whether they'd make different choices. Maybe, maybe not. They're teenagers after all. But, as a parent, I'd much rather my kids learn in classrooms, from teachers who can provide factual information, than by watching birth control and menstrual suppression ads on TV, gleaning information from misinformed friends, or tragically, developing sexually with no information at all. At the tail end of 2009, living in Greenwich Village, in New York City, it's shocking to realize we're moving backwards. This reticence to talk sex in school is nothing but a disservice to our children.