Niagara Falls students will have access to contraceptives and detailed information on how to use them as part of an upgraded sex education curriculum approved 8-1 Thursday by the Board of Education.
Superintendent Mark R. Laurrie said the district is responding to high rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease by scrapping its abstinence-only curriculum.
Now Planned Parenthood and other outside groups will be allowed to make presentations to the students about birth control.
Laurrie calls that an "abstinence-plus curriculum."
"I believe we have to meet students where they're at, and as we enter 2018, this is where they're at," Laurrie said.
He said the students will learn "healthy practices in a well-rounded manner. I don't think it's earth-shattering. I don't think it's revolutionary."
Starting in April, contraceptives and counseling will be available in health care vans parked outside the school nurses' offices at the high school and the district's prep schools. The vans are owned by Community Health Center of Buffalo and staffed with a doctor and a nurse.
That organization already has an office in Niagara Falls that makes contraceptives available to teenagers as well as adults.
The vans also would provide primary health care to students, many of whose families don't make regular visits to doctor's offices.
The revised health curriculum also includes hiring a new teacher to make the rounds of Niagara Falls' elementary schools to talk to fifth- and sixth-graders about health in what Laurrie called a "developmentally appropriate way."
The change in the curriculum was initiated by high school students, who lobbied the board last spring for more detailed information about birth control and safe sex. But Laurrie said the story really began with a survey of students in late 2015, in which the majority of the kids said they weren't receiving enough information on sex education or a variety of other health topics.
Board President Nicholas Vilardo cast the only vote against the plan because he objects to the participation of Planned Parenthood.
"I don't have any confidence in Planned Parenthood," said Vilardo, who after a public hearing on the issue last month described himself as pro-life.
Board member Robert M. Restaino said he doesn't think Planned Parenthood will be using Niagara Falls schools to advance its agenda.
"Our district is using whatever services we need from them to advance our curriculum," Restaino maintained.
Bishop Kevin Dobbs, another board member, said he's supporting the plan because it "gives students an opportunity to learn (improved) behaviors, attitudes and habits."
Board member Russell Petrozzi pointed out that parents can opt out of any portion of the health curriculum.
Laurrie said he will ask the board at a future meeting to hire an outside company to monitor the results of the new program through focus groups of students and parents.
"I am going to ask that we review this at six-month intervals," the superintendent said.