Source: Legislative Gazette
|New York City schools Chancellor Walcott says ‘We have a responsibility to keep students safe’
November 14, 2011
As the question of sex education for New York City students draws national attention, parents sat down with the city’s Department of Education to talk about the controversial issue.
“We agree that there needs to be sex education in public schools,” said former Democratic Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, the executive director of the New York City Parent’s Choice Coalition, a group that wants parents to have a choice in the type of sex education their children receive.
Last summer, New York City mandated that one semester of sex education be taught to children in Middle School in grade six or seven, and one be taught in High School, in grade nine or 10.
“Talking with teenagers about sex isn’t easy or without controversy. But I believe the school system has an important role to play with regard to educating our children about sex and the potential consequences of risky behavior,” said New York City Department of Education Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott.
“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 — I was deeply concerned to learn that one-third of new cases of chlamydia in New York City are among teens,” said Walcott.
“Many of our schools are already teaching sex education and using our recommended curriculum, but I strongly believe this sex education mandate is long overdue for our school system. I have always believed that parents should have the right to opt out of certain sex education lessons such as conversations on prevention and birth control, as they will in this case. But I also feel we have a responsibility to offer our students access to information that will keep them safe and healthy,” Walcott added.
Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education, released a statement explaining the department’s position on the issue. “We are not mandating a specific curriculum. We are mandating the inclusion of comprehensive sex education in health classes,” the statement reads.
“We have recommended curricula, the New York City version of HealthSmart in middle school and the New York City versions of HealthSmart plus Reducing the Risk in high school. These curricula include age-appropriate sexual health lessons and have been recommended since 2007,” Feinberg added.
These programs have drawn ire from the New York City Parent’s Choice Coalition for taking a “risk prevention” approach over a “risk avoidance” approach.
The coalition is made up of nearly a dozen religious and civic organizations that feel, in this case, that a child’s parents should have a say in the sex education that they receive. Schools shouldn’t be teaching children to have sex, say representatives from the coalition. In addition to the program the state recommends, the coalition says schools should provide students and parents with an alternate course that focuses on abstinence.
The Department of Education statement explains that the HealthSmart and Reducing the Risk programs do, in fact, provide detailed explanations of abstinence and recommends that students do not participate in any sexual activities.
Quotes such as “Abstinence is the only method of birth control that is 100 percent effective, 100 percent safe, and 100 percent free of side effects,” “Many young people believe in and practice abstinence for religious reasons and personal moral beliefs,” and “Abstinence can be a sign of real emotional maturity and integrity,” that are found in the programs have been highlighted by the Department of Education show how the programs do provide proper abstinence education.
The Department of Education further explains that the versions of the HealthSmart and Reducing the Risk curricula available on the Web are not the exact programs that would be implemented in schools and that they have been working with the programs’ publishers since 2007 to develop appropriate modifications to the programs for New York City students, such as removing an activity that would have middle school students group and sort sexual activities in order of the potential health risks that they pose.
Although the department will be communicating with schools about specific topics that must be covered as part of comprehensive sex education, representatives feel that abstinence only education is not an option, as of now.
Benjamin has called on the Department of Education to open up town hall meetings on the subject, but the department has not responded to the coalition’s request, he says.
Benjamin said because principals have the discretion in choosing the program to be implemented in their schools, the city should have town hall meetings so that principals can let parents know that their voice matters.
“Since the mandate was dictated before the city council or school board [saw it], it is only fitting for the city to hold town hall meetings,” Benjamin said.
“Parents have a right under federal law to know what their children are being taught … With the most controversial curriculum in city history at issue, hundreds of thousands of parents are being left in the dark. The [Department of Education] needs to explain what is going on,” said Benjamin.
On Nov. 2, members of the coalition met with representatives of the Department of Education to discuss the issue. Though the town hall meetings weren’t agreed upon, Benjamin was optimistic about his coalition’s position.
“We’re closer than we thought we were as far as abstinence programs go,” Benjamin reported. “Deputy Chancellor Grimm agreed to review abstinence curriculums. We [plan] to send two this week.”
Meanwhile, Benjamin has asked that journalist Roland Martin apologize for remarks he wrote in an opinion piece for CNN on Oct. 29, where he called New York City parents “ignorant” and “whiny” for being concerned with controversial sex education programs that could be taught to public school students.
“Roland Martin needs to immediately apologize to concerned city school parents and if he won’t, CNN needs to take action,” Benjamin said.
Martin’s piece, titled “Sex education should be mandatory in all schools,” is available on CNN. It begins with the sentence: “There are few things more annoying than listening to ignorant, whiny parents complain about a school district teaching their children about sex.”
“How dare Martin call parents ‘whiny and ignorant’ for having an opinion on what’s best for their children. We aren’t looking to prevent a single city parent from enrolling his or her children in the mandated program; all we are asking is for an alternative for families who find the planned program culturally hurtful or offensive,” Benjamin said.
“It was very insulting. He makes it appear that we don’t want sex taught at all. Overall we agree that we need to have sex education. [Martin] was making arguments from 20 years ago … he clearly didn’t read our material,” Benjamin added.
When asked if it he thought if it was Martin, not he, who is being ignorant, Benjamin replied with a laugh, “Yes, I would say that.”
If you believe that Chancellor Walcott is being disingenuous, say so. Leave a comment below.