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Teaching the birds and the bees; Study finds the content and quality of instruction ?on reproductive matters varies across the state

In New York State, there are lots of different ways to teach sex education.

A teacher in one school created a handout – intended to spark conversation – that described the "common uses" of a woman as "highly ornamental, especially in sports cars," "can greatly aid relaxation," and "can be a very effective cleaning agent."

And as recently as two years ago, HIV education in one local district incorporated a handout from the early 1990s that includes this: "A large number of people who test positive [for HIV] will develop AIDS. And if you get AIDS, you'll probably die of the disease, but that's all we know."

The New York Civil Liberties Union recently released a study based on sex education curriculums it collected from 82 school districts across the state, obtained under the Freedom of Information Law. The group found a wide range of which topics are taught, which are often ignored, and how some of them are presented to students.

"It's shocking what passes for sex ed in some New York classrooms," said Johanna Miller, who co-wrote the report.

Each school district establishes its own curriculum. Many officials in local districts say they adhere as closely as possible to the state's guidance on sex education but emphasize that the state leaves it up to local schools to decide the specifics.

The state Education Department seven years ago issued a guidance document to schools regarding state standards in health education. It outlines instruction about healthy relationships, condoms and other contraceptives, gender stereotypes, sexual orientation, sexual violence, and other topics.

It serves as guidance – not a directive.

The NYCLU says the state ought to change its approach.

"Our concern with this is that there are no standards that districts can even look to from the state," said Miller, the group's assistant advocacy director. "Teachers are often left to make this work on their own. I think in most cases, school districts are doing the best they can with limited resources. We want to make sure students are getting top-notch lessons, especially when they are about themselves and their bodies."

In 1987, the state instituted a requirement that districts teach about HIV. Every district in the NYCLU study – which examined curriculum from 2009-10 and 2010-11 – taught students about HIV. Miller pointed to that as an example of how the state can effectively influence sex education in local schools.

She said that in initial meetings about the report, state Education Department officials have been receptive and have asked for information about how other states handle sex education.

State Education Department officials issued a two-sentence statement to The Buffalo News in response to the report.

"We'll carefully review the report and its recommendations," said Dennis Tompkins, chief of external affairs for the department. "Our goal is to make sure students get accurate, sound health information."

Some local health educators say they agree with the NYCLU and would like to see the state issue more binding directives.

"I think children should not be having sex. But children are having sex," said Sue Ventresca, director of health-related services for the Buffalo Public Schools.
"The school's role would be to educate our children so they can make informed choices about sex."

A recent district survey of 11,000 middle school and high school students in Buffalo found that 51 percent of high school students reported having had sex – more than one out of 10 of them reporting they had sex for the first time before they turned 13. Statewide, 42 percent of high school students said they had had sex at least once in their life; 6 percent said they had sex before they were 13.

Nearly one in three sexually active Buffalo high school students said they did not use a condom the last time they had sex, mirroring statewide findings.

Those findings underscore the need for a comprehensive health curriculum, Ventresca said, which was included in a wellness policy the School Board adopted several months ago.

"We we want to make sure our kids have the skills and knowledge to make healthy, informed choices about sex at a crucial time in their development," she said.

The NYCLU study found that the content and quality of instruction varied from school to school.

Lessons about reproductive anatomy were often inaccurate, incomplete and incorporated gender stereotypes, the study found.

Materials in Lowville, a Central New York district, defined the word "vagina" as "sperm deposit." Another district, Waterloo, described the penis as a "sperm gun."

In some cases, schools used inaccurate statistics.

One district used a cartoon drawing of what looks like a male figure saying, "There's only a chance in 1 million you'll get pregnant." An apparently feminine character responds, "There's a million to one chance that I will get pregnant."

Some topics were not covered at all by most of the districts surveyed. Students learned about sexual orientation in only about one in four of those schools. Adoption or abortion were taught in about one in three schools.

Schools did the most thorough job with HIV instruction, which has been required by the state for 25 years, the study found. Abstinence was also taught in all the schools surveyed.

But in some cases, districts used outdated information.

Lewiston-Porter, for instance, used an outdated handout that said: "A large number of people who test positive [for HIV] will develop AIDS. And if you get AIDS, you'll probably die of the disease, but that's all we know." The handout goes on to say that evidence indicates a person's health affects how long they remain healthy after they are infected with HIV.

The Lewiston-Porter superintendent could not be reached to comment. It's not clear whether the district still uses that handout in its curriculum.

A few of the handouts highlighted in the NYCLU's 70-page report are from the Pioneer Central Schools, a sprawling rural district covering part of southeastern Erie County, as well as parts of Wyoming, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties.
Pioneer's sex ed curriculum stood out to the study's authors.

"[Pioneer] was one district where it was quite clear the instructor was creating lessons outside of commonly available curriculum," Miller said. "A lot of the material seemed like it runs the risk of perpetuating outdated stereotypes about both men and women. We didn't see evidence of any activities to debunk stereotypes, like discussion questions that we saw in other districts."

One of the handouts in Pioneer's sex ed curriculum was called "Romance Mathematics." It lists four equations: "Smart man smart woman = romance; smart man dumb woman = affair; dumb man smart woman = marriage; dumb man dumb woman = pregnancy."

Another of the Pioneer handouts was a spoof one teacher in the district created of a "hazardous materials data sheet" used for chemicals – with the hazardous material in this case being "woman."

It listed the "chemical properties" as "reacts well to gold, platinum and all precious stones"; "explodes spontaneously without reason or warning"; and "the most powerful money-reducing agent known to man."

Another handout about basic differences between men and women "that affect the marriage relationship" said that women have "a better understanding of how to develop a relationship" and are "very sensitive." A man, on the other hand, "doesn't know how to encourage and love his wife or treat her in a way that meets her deepest needs" and "enters the marriage knowing about sex, and very little about genuine, unselfish love."

Sharon Huff, superintendent of the Pioneer schools, said that when the district learned of the NYCLU study this summer, it prompted officials in her district to review their sex ed curriculum.

Some of the handouts "were used as what's called an instructional hook to bring students into the topic," she said. The district was not trying to offend any gender or group, she said, but present information from a different perspective. As a result of the NYCLU study, the district has stopped using two of the handouts, including the one describing a woman as a "hazardous material."

"I think what we took from this was an opportunity to review our curriculum and use the information that would be educationally sound for our students," she said.



Findings of the recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, from the Buffalo public schools

*51% :Buffalo high school students said they have had sex at least once. Statewide, 42 percent of high school students said they have.

*12% : High school students in Buffalo said they had sex for the first time before they were 13 years old. That's nearly twice the statewide rate

*87%: Sexually active Buffalo high school students said they did not use birth control pills before the last time they had sex.

*5%: Buffalo middle school students said they had sex before they were 11 years old.*