Q&A: Head of Planned Parenthood NYC on the City’s New Sex Ed Mandate

Q&A: Head of Planned Parenthood NYC on the City’s New Sex Ed Mandate

August 11, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Planned Parenthood teaches sex-ed classes in several public school throughout the city, an arrangement that is likely to continue next year due to the new mandate for comprehensive sex education in the city's schools. MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced this week that city schools will be required to teach a semester of sex education in sixth or seventh grade and again in ninth or 10th grade.

MetroFocus spoke to Joan Malin, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of New York City, about the planned sex education program.

Q: The new mandate is part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initiative to improve the lives of black and Latino teenagers. How does sex education influence low-income and/or minority communities in the city?

A: Historically, low-income communities and many communities of color have faced disproportionately high health care disparities — and especially a lack of access to good health care — as well as good information and education about sex and sexuality. The city neighborhoods with the highest rates of Chlamydia and Gonorrhea, as well as of teen pregnancy, are also some of the poorest, according to the Department of Health.

Sex education improves the health, life and safety of all New York City’s youth. Studies show that when young people receive comprehensive, medically accurate, age appropriate sex education, and receive it consistently and often, they make safer healthier decisions.

Q: The city recommends using the out-of-the-box sex ed curriculum programs HealthSmart and Reducing the Risk. How do educators decide what to include in the curricula?

A: Planned Parenthood of New York City was among several organizations and individual experts on a review committee back when the city first selected these curricula. According to research scientist Doug Kirby from ETR Associates, a nonprofit health education organization that helped create HealthSmart and Reducing the Risk, “the programs that are effective involve some lecturing by teachers and a variety of interactive activities, like small group or class discussions and role playing to help young people practice saying no to unwanted sex.”

Kirby said the curriculums are age appropriate, meaning the focus for younger students is on abstinence, and then shifts more toward condom and contraception use for high school students.

Contrary to the notion that sex education will rush kids into having sex, Kirby said four separate studies found that Reduce the Risk delayed the initiation of sex.

Q: What are some mistakes educators make when deciding what should be taught in schools?

A: Sometimes they allow principals or individual teachers to make decisions about the curriculum as opposed to choosing nationally recognized, evidence-based programs. We need to make sure that comprehensive, age-appropriate, medically accurate sex ed is taught to every student, in every grade, every year.

Additionally, comprehensive sex education isn’t just about biology. It includes information about healthy relationships, parent-child communication and how to make safe and healthy decisions.

Q: Why is it important to start sexual education in middle school?

A: Sex education is a lifelong process so it’s actually important we give our young people good, age-appropriate information, as early and often as possible. Young people are already learning about sex and sexuality from a number of sources  — television, radio, the Internet, etc… So it’s important that we make sure they’re getting healthy messages and accurate information.
Additionally, New York City’s HIV/AIDS case rate is three times the national average, and our rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea and herpes are far above the national averages, hitting youth between the ages of 15 and 24 the hardest.

Q: What are the political challenges of mandating comprehensive sexual education?

A: We need to hold this administration accountable, and make sure it provides resources, trains teachers and remains committed to making sure our kids get the best education there is.

MetroFocus Multimedia Editor Sam Lewis conducted this interview over email. It has been edited and condensed.