NEW YORK — Catholic leaders in New York City are decrying a new mandate that students in the city’s public middle and high schools attend sex-education classes.
Beginning in the second semester of the 2011-2012 academic year, the city schools’ health curriculum will include lessons on puberty, birth control, teen pregnancy, preventing sexually transmitted diseases and getting help with sexual decisions, among several topics.
The New York City Department of Education says the curriculum will also include lessons on abstinence and purity, resisting sexual pressure and avoiding high-risk situations, but some classroom instructions would also have sixth- and seventh-grade students learning about condom use, which Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, called troubling.
“Parents have the right and the responsibility to be the first and primary educators of their children. This mandate by the city usurps that role and allows the public-school system to substitute its beliefs and values for those of the parents,” Zwilling said.
“We’re back to the idea that somehow condoms are going to resolve the problem,” said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who said that more than 20 years of research shows that distributing condoms has not helped to reduce unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
“At some point even a fool would understand that if I try to do something, and I continue failing with the same approach, that it is time for a different strategy. But they never learn. They go right back to the well,” Donohue said.
Bishop Nicolas DiMarzio of Brooklyn said the mandate was “one more example of political agendas being forced on children and their families.”
“To suggest that this mandate is needed, specifically citing black and Latino minorities, is offensive to parents and squashes the principles that education for our children was founded upon,” Bishop DiMarzio said in a prepared statement.
“Yet again, our political leaders follow the trend of transferring authority to teachers from parents, and parents continue to lose the right to parent their own children. We will work with everyone, but especially with the parents of our public-school children enrolled in our religious-education programs, to assist them in asserting their parental rights.”
‘Safe and Healthy’
The sex-education mandate falls under the umbrella of the Young Men’s Initiative, a $127 million, three-year plan recently unveiled by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to confront racial and ethnic disparities and raise the performance outcomes of the city’s young black and Latino men.
In a letter to middle and high-school principals this month, New York City Schools’ Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the school system had “an important role to play in regard to educating our children about sex and the potential consequences of engaging in risky behavior.”
Citing the need for school-based sex education, Walcott said, were statistics that show many public-school students are having sex before age 13, are having multiple sex partners, and not protecting themselves against sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. According to the 2005 “Youth Risk Behavior Survey” data, 41% of New York City youth reported becoming sexually active by ninth grade and 58% by 12th grade.
“As a parent and a grandparent — and as the person responsible for ensuring that all of our public-school students receive a high-quality education — that is very concerning,” Walcott said.
New York state currently requires a one-semester, daily health-education course in both middle and high school, but it does not mandate sex education. Many schools voluntarily include sex education in their curriculum, but some have not, leading Walcott to say that there is an “uneven system that I believe does not serve our students well.”
The chancellor said the school system is “strongly recommending” that health instruction take place in sixth or seventh grade in middle school and in ninth or 10th grade in high school.
“We must be committed to ensuring that both middle-school and high-school students are exposed to this valuable information, so they can learn to keep themselves safe before, and when, they decide to have sex,” Walcott said, adding that the policy was “overdue” for the school system, while adding that parents will have the right to opt-out of certain sex-education lessons, such as conversations on prevention and birth control.
“But I also feel we have a responsibility to offer our students access to information that will keep them safe and healthy,” Walcott said.
The mandate drew praise from organizations such as NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Andrew Stern, interim executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice New York, which advocates for legalized abortion, said in a prepared statement that the schools’ mandate should be the beginning of New York City’s efforts “to provide students with the comprehensive, age-appropriate, medically accurate sexuality education they need.”
“Just as with other subjects taught in school, sex education requires more than merely two semesters over the course of adolescence. It requires reinforcement throughout the years, to reflect developmental changes, new sexual experiences, and rapidly changing information on contraceptive technologies,” Stern said.
New York Civil Liberties Union’s executive director, Donna Lieberman, issued a statement saying that the New York City Department of Education has showed “it recognizes the importance of providing students the information they need to make healthy choices about sex.”
“Giving students the information they need to make healthy decisions about sex and sexuality is crucial to public health,” said Melissa Goodman, New York Civil Liberties Union senior litigation and policy counsel for reproductive rights.
Zwilling, however, argued that 40 years of experience has shown misguided efforts to make sexual activity devoid of consequences to be a failure.
“Rates of teen sexual activity and pregnancies continue to soar, despite condoms being freely given away, including in our public schools,” Zwilling said.
“Abstinence before marriage is the only sure way to avoid pregnancy and disease, and recent scholarship has shown that abstinence education leads to healthier, better adjusted teens and young adults. The city would be better advised to put its efforts into promoting what truly works rather than continuing to promote a failed experiment.”
The Heritage Foundation says there at least 10 recent scientific evaluations that show the effectiveness of abstinence programs in decreasing sexual behavior. Among those include:
• An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Michael Resnick and others titled “Protecting Adolescents From Harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health” showing that “abstinence pledge” programs are dramatically effective in reducing sexual activity among teenagers in grades 7 through 12.
• Abstinence by Choice operates in 20 schools in the Little Rock, Ark., area. The program targets seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade students and reaches about 4,000 youths each year. A recent evaluation, involving a sample of nearly 1,000 students, shows that the program reduced the sexual activity rates of girls by approximately 40% (from 10.2% to 5.9%) and the rate for boys by approximately 30% (from 22.8% to 15.8%) when compared with similar students who had not been exposed to the program.
State Sen. Ruben Diaz, D-Bronx, an ordained minister with the Church of God, said in a written statement that he was “troubled and dismayed” with the new mandate. He also said a similar proposed policy was defeated 20 years ago by parental input.
“The parents were heard, and they were respected. So were the children,” Diaz said.
The Catholic League’s Donohue said that Mayor Bloomberg pushed the health-curriculum changes without going through the usual hearings before education subcommittees.
“Since when does the mayor of New York make decisions about health curriculum?” Donohue said. “There were no public hearings. No parental input was allowed. … It reminds me of what happened when the [New York] state Legislature voted for legalized same-sex ‘marriage.’ There were no hearings there. That came out of nowhere.”
Donohue also said the city schools’ mandate was in line with the broader society’s “schizophrenic” approach to sex education. He noted that government and health officials have no qualms with teaching that smoking cigarettes is unhealthy. But when it comes to sex outside of marriage, consequences are ignored.
“I’m not opposed to sex ed, but we should tell these kids, ‘Here’s what happens to you when you engage in sexual experimentation at your age.’ What we have to do is not only talk about negative consequences of teen sexuality, but also to get Hollywood and Madison Avenue on board,” Donohue said.
“We really are in a schizophrenic situation,” he said. “We’re telling people not to give in to temptation while tempting them through eroticizing our culture.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from New Bedford, Massachusetts.