• Sex education is not required in New York schools, but legislation could change that - The Journal News | LoHud.com

    New York is one of only 21 states that do not require schools to teach any sex education — not birth control or STD prevention or consent — but advocates hope the time has come to address a vast instructional void in a generally progressive state.

    Past legislation dealing with sex ed has withered in Albany, largely due to Republican opposition. But a big push is now underway to convince the Democratic-controlled Legislature to support a bill that would compel school districts to teach sex education in grades K-12.

    The legislation (S4844; A6512) would give New York, in one swoop, one of the nation’s most comprehensive sex ed laws. It would require districts to provide age-appropriate, medically accurate and inclusive sex education, using a not-yet-developed state curriculum or a curriculum of their choosing.

    “The research is there that this is something that parents want,” said Jennifer Hirsch, a professor of public health at Columbia University. “The question is, is this going to be the year that our legislators deliver what we want?”

    The legislation faces significant hurdles.

    The education establishment is concerned about school districts having to absorb the costs of another state-mandated program. Others think that the Legislature may want to take some time to get feedback about the bill, since aspects of sex education, such as birth control access and LGBT inclusion, can be divisive.

    The New York State Catholic Conference, for instance, opposes the bill.

    "Our concern is the one-size-fits-all state mandate that doesn’t take into consideration the religious and moral beliefs of parents, and their fundamental right to direct the education of their children," said Kathleen M. Gallagher, director for pro-life activities for the group.

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    No state standards for sex ed in NY

    Many school districts in New York do teach sex education, but each determines what to cover and what to leave out. The state doesn’t require lessons to be medically accurate or inclusive of all genders and sexual orientations. 

    New York is one of the 39 states that mandates HIV education, which is required to be age appropriate and to stress abstinence from sex. But, again, instruction does not have to be medically accurate.

    Lisa Dalsimer assumed her children were receiving thorough sex education in the Rye Neck schools, until conversations with her eighth-grade son led her to believe he was getting "the bare minimum." She lobbied the district for better standards, and an updated curriculum was unveiled last fall.

    “I want my kids to come to me with questions, but I know it's not realistic that they're always going to feel comfortable,” Dalsimer said. “If it's being taught by somebody who specializes in this, or they're trained, [my kids are] much more likely to get the information that they need.”

    Rye Neck officials did not respond to requests for comment. 

    In 2012, the New York Civil Liberties Union studied what students were being taught about sex, based on sex education curricula from about 100 districts around the state.

    They found that most districts were teaching inaccurate or incomplete information about basic anatomy, contraception, and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. More than half the districts surveyed made no mention of LGBT relationships or sexual consent.

    The NYCLU took their findings to the state Education Department.

    “We were advocating that they move forward with state regulations defining this curriculum as a necessary component of health education, and they were uncomfortable with doing this,” said Katharine Bodde, senior policy counsel for NYCLU.

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    She said officials felt that they needed legislation to move forward.

    Several bills have tried different strategies to set requirements for sex education in New York, to no avail.

    One would have given funding only to districts that chose to teach comprehensive sex education. Another would have required the development of a state curriculum and mandated its use by districts.

    The current bill aims to be something of a compromise.

    Sponsored by Sen. Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale, Ulster County, and Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, D-Queens, it would require the state to develop a comprehensive curriculum.

    But it would allow districts to use the state program or choose another curriculum — as long as it covers grades K-12 students and is age-appropriate, medically accurate and inclusive of genders and orientations. 

    The bill would require a state curriculum to include instruction about anatomy, reproduction, contraception, STD prevention, consent and healthy relationships. The bill does not mention of abortion. 

    “One of the aspects of this law that I really like is that it's not mandating the curriculum,” Metzger said. “The SED is directed to develop a model, but each school district is to come up with their own process for developing the curriculum that makes sense for their school community. I think that's a real selling point of the legislation.”

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    The politics behind sex ed in New York

    New York is both lauded and demonized as one of the nation’s bluest states, so why does it have fewer health education requirements than Iowa, Utah and North Carolina?

    For many years, upstate Republicans preferred to let districts make their own decisions about sex education.

    “Before last year, we had a Republican controlled state Senate,” said Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Pelham, Westchester County, a co-sponsor of the bill. “The main thrust of what the Republicans had done was keep bills off of the floor.”

    Biaggi pointed to the influence of the Catholic Church.

    “The Catholic Church has been a very strong voice in opposing comprehensive sex education,” she said. “This is probably the main reason why the bill has been kept off of the floor.”

    Some advocates say Republican senators couldn’t have buried sex education legislation without help from the former Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democratic senators who caucused separately from mainstream Democrats for about seven years and often aligned themselves with Senate Republicans. The IDC dissolved in 2018.

    “As far as sex [education]...the IDC made sure it wouldn't come to the floor, so you wouldn't have to expose a divisive issue within the Republican Party," said Catherine Lederer-Plaskett, president of WCLA — Choice Matters, a political action committee that advocates for abortion rights and that focused on defeating IDC members in 2018.

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    Sen. David Carlucci, D-Clarkstown, Rockland County, a member of the IDC for its entire run, is a co-sponsor of the sex education bill.

    Asked why New York has not passed legislation until now requiring sex education, he said that, "Maybe it's because people have gotten lax."

    “New York state and the United States had made strides in lowering the rate of STDs, and maybe that's gotten us to relax," he said.

    Carlucci did not respond to requests for a follow-up interview.

    When Democrats first gained control of the Senate last year, they had to focus on urgent, progressive legislation like bail reform and drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants, said Carlyn Cowen, a steering committee member of The Jewish Vote, a group that advocates for progressive causes.

    She said that the Senate may now be able to focus on other important issues, like sex education.

    “The Legislature is starting to clear the backlog and hopefully get to a place where there's not as many things that are urgent to pass,” Cowen said.

    “I think that we're starting to move towards a place where we can begin to look at some of the broader, more transformative stuff.”

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    Another mandate could impact schools

    But for school districts, transformative legislation can mean yet another requirement that is time-consuming and expensive. 

    State Sen. Shelley Mayer, D-Yonkers, chair of the Senate education committee, said that while she supports the bill, compromise and funding will be required to get it passed.

    "[The State Education Department] indicated in their budget testimony that when we do impose requirements on them, they want to have funding allocated," Mayer said. 

    Right now, the legislation says that its costs are "to be determined."

    The state School Board Association opposes curriculum mandates, including the sex ed bill, asserting that decisions about what to teach are best left to districts or should be handed down from the state Board of Regents, with funding attached.

    Biaggi said that as important as the legislation is, implementing it would be a costly mandate for school districts.

    “If we're making sure that this goes into every single school, then we have to make sure that each school district has the proper training, as well as curriculum, and we need to be able to buy time to do that," she said. "I don't think it's going to be a very easy thing.” 

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    The need for more sex ed in schools

    Advocates insist that a sex education curriculum is much needed.

    The teen pregnancy rate has been reaching record lows since 2009, but there is growing concern nationally about rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases. 

    2018 was the fifth consecutive year of increasing infection rates, according to the  federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which releases an annual surveillance report.

    There were 2.5 million cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis, an all-time high. Decreased condom use among people age 15-24 was cited as a contributing factor.

    Columbia University's Hirsch said that sex education can address very current concerns like sexual consent and violence.

    Her research has found that young women who received education that covered consent and skills training — how to say no to sex you don't want to have — were half as likely to be raped in college.

    “You can think about sex ed, really, as the next step in the ‘Me Too’ policy agenda,” Hirsch said.

    More: Enrollment watch: Growing, shrinking school districts face unique challenges

    Twitter: @sdgrosserode

    Sophie Grosserode is a staff writer for The Journal News in Westchester County.

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