High school students in Niagara Falls would receive more information about sex and contraception under a plan being considered by the Board of Education.
But it remains an open question whether contraceptives would be distributed to them.
Superintendent Mark R. Laurrie said having school nurses distribute condoms, the practice at Buffalo Public Schools, would be going too far for Niagara Falls.
"My sense was, the community wasn't ready for that much of a leap right away," Laurrie said at a recent School Board meeting.
An alternative calls for letting the Community Health Center of Buffalo park a van at the high school from where a doctor and a nurse could offer contraceptives to students and provide health care.
Laurrie favors that approach. The decision rests with School Board members.
"I'm going to ask that they do that," Laurrie said.
The district's sex education proposal will be discussed at a public forum at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the district administration building at 630 66th St.
Laurrie expects a vote at the December board meeting, and if approved, the plan could be implemented in January.
Students last spring requested revisions to the curriculum. They told the board the abstinence-only curriculum wasn't working, given teen pregnancy statistics.
Nearly 10 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 in the western half of Niagara Falls were pregnant in 2014, according to the state Health Department. The national average in 2015 was 2.2 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Laurrie called it time "to move from abstinence-only teaching to abstinence-plus. What is the plus? Talk about contraception. I believe we owe that to our students."
Laurrie said he would like to see the Community Health Center van parked at Niagara Falls High School two or three days a week, and maybe also at the city's prep schools, as Niagara Falls calls its junior high schools.
The vans, which would be staffed by a doctor and a nurse, also would offer primary health care to students who otherwise may not receive any. The visits would be free.
"Our students do not go to the doctor or the dentist as often as they should," Laurrie said. "It's not just a sexual health issue. It's an overall health issue."
"We want to be consistent with what the school district decides," said Lavonne Ansari, CEO and executive director of Community Health Center.
The center already offers condoms and the "morning-after" pill to anyone, including teenagers, who visits its Niagara Falls location on Highland Avenue.
The proposed sex education program would include visits to high school classes from outside agencies such as Planned Parenthood, Native American Services and Project TEAL to discuss the proper use of condoms and other birth control methods.
A district employee would escort the outside instructors and make sure they don't exceed limits set by the district, Laurrie said.
"They will not have free rein," Laurrie said.
School Board President Nicholas Vilardo said he opposes abortion and doesn't want anyone from Planned Parenthood promoting it. He questioned whether the personal views of the school employees escorting the visitors might cause a problem.
"How do we know that person can be objective and not have the same agenda?" Vilardo asked at a recent meeting.
"These are professionals that we're dealing with. I don't think they would sacrifice their integrity to promote an agenda we don't agree with," board member Earl Bass replied. "It's time we actually made a move."
'Help these kids'
The state Education Department mandates sex education but leaves details up to local districts. The state encourages what it calls "evidence-based curriculum," by which it means programs with a track record of reducing teen pregnancies.
"We want it to work," said Ansari of the Community Health Center. "We're all for everything we can do to help these kids."
The district's confidential survey of Niagara Falls High School students in 2015 showed 42.6 percent were not virgins; that 6.5 percent had sex for the first time before turning 13; and that 14.3 percent had four or more past sexual partners, Laurrie said.
The incidence of the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea among Niagara County teenagers was 66 percent higher than the average for New York State, outside of New York City, state figures show.
Overall, "I support the program," Vilardo said. "I think it's long overdue.
"I'm not in favor of abortion. I don't mind contraceptives," he said.
Effect on academics
At three forums about sex education this fall, some parents objected, saying the district was exceeding its proper role.
"They're saying it's not your job. You should be teaching reading, writing and arithmetic," said the Rev. Kevin Dobbs, a School Board member.
Laurrie said he was hired in part to increase test scores and graduation rates. Better information about sexuality might help that, he said.
"We're deluding ourselves if we think they're thinking about Mr. Smith's teaching of Algebra 3, or Mrs. Smith's teaching of religions of Southeast Asia," Laurrie said. "Some of them are thinking, 'I wonder if I got my girlfriend pregnant last night.' "
Without upgrading sex education, "I don't think we can make the significant change we need," Laurrie said.
Board member Robert M. Restaino supports improved sex education but thought Laurrie was overselling it as a means of improving educational results.
"It's important for us to do this. Our business is education, and this is educating," Restaino said. "But we're nuts if we think the nine of us (board members) can fix this. I think we're setting ourselves up for disappointment and perhaps embarrassment."
"I look at this curriculum and the Community Health Center as two more tools in the tool belt," board member Ronald Barstys said. "It's not a silver bullet, but it's a needle-mover."
Parents would be allowed to keep their children out of any new sexuality classes, Laurrie said.
He called the opt-out option better than an opt-in option. So many parents are disengaged with their children's education that permission slips never would come back, he said.