You know that the adults aren’t doing their job when the kids come pleading for better sex education. That’s what is happening in Niagara Falls and, fortunately for the students who are asking, they have an ally in Superintendent Mark R. Laurrie.
On this matter, Niagara Falls is at the center of a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances: Rates of teenage pregnancy and of sexually transmitted diseases in the school district are higher than the state average yet, in the schools, students are taught nothing but abstinence. It’s not working.
That it wasn’t working should have been glaringly obvious to those in positions of authority, but it took the determination of the Niagara Falls Youth City Council to bring it to the attention of those who could make a difference. Representatives of the 10-member group approached the Board of Education recently and asked for better sex education in the district.
“I’m a ninth-grader, and all my friends are participating in sex, and they have no idea what they’re doing,” said Mia Maye. “They’re not being safe about it. They’re always scared there’s going to be a pregnancy scare or an STD. And they have no one to talk to about it.”
They should be scared. Pregnancy and STDs are predictable consequences of careless sex. But teens and even preteens are bombarded with sexual images and messages that create a powerful inducement – and it’s an unfair fight. Teenagers’ brains mature more slowly than their bodies. They are poorly equipped to resist the temptations that society dangles before them, day by day, hour by hour and even minute by minute.
For some students, abstinence education may be sufficient to discourage sexual activity, but plainly, too few of them. That failure creates personal and public consequences that can reverberate down through generations.
If adults don’t understand that they owe it to children to better prepare them for the world as it is, then they at least can act in their self-interest. Fewer teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases means lower public costs. They also increase the chances that young men and women have the breathing space to develop into responsible, self-sufficient adults whose own children stand a better chance of avoiding premature parenthood.
Precisely how Niagara Falls chooses to attack this problem is less important than it is to do something constructive. For example, while Laurrie has promised to respond, he doesn’t want to go as far as Buffalo, which makes condoms available to students.
It’s not an unreasonable approach, but the district needs to get real. Students need to know about birth control, for example, and, given what the School Board has learned, they need to know before they reach the ninth grade.
The district can – and should – do that without abandoning the encouragement to abstain from sexual activity. The advice, no doubt, will fall on many deaf ears, but presented in a thoughtful way, it can make a difference for some and it doesn’t cost much to offer.
But, as students have documented in an inarguable way, the district needs to do more. Parents and teachers should be involved in the development of a curriculum and, bowing to reality, parents will need to be able to opt their children out of such instruction.
But they shouldn’t. This is information their children will learn sooner or later, and later can have terrible consequences.