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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Health education includes a lot of topics -- nutrition, fitness, substance use, mental health, violence prevention and communication skills, to name a few -- but the one that always gets the most attention is sex ed. And lately it's not just getting attention in class.

It's been all over the news.

My state, California, expects us to teach comprehensive sexuality lessons. That means we provide young people with medically accurate information about human anatomy and talk frankly about birth control options, sexually transmitted infections, safer sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual choices (including, but not limited to, abstinence).

When I started teaching 11 years ago, we were right in the middle of the "abstinence-only" years, and most students in the United States were getting very little in the way of real sex education in schools. Thankfully, in the wake of the overwhelming evidence that abstinence-only programs fail to keep anyone abstinent or safe, more states are now offering at least some real sexuality education.

I have to admit the first time I met parents at a back-to-school night and told them that I would soon be teaching their 14- and 15-year-olds about condoms and pregnancy prevention, I expected some might be upset.

I didn't expect what actually happened, which is that a bunch of parents came up to shake my hand, saying things like, "Thank you so much for teaching my daughter about that stuff. I know she needs to learn it, but I just don't know what to say."

The truth is that most parents in our country want their kids to learn about abstinence and birth control in the classroom, as shown in this new report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Furthermore, from the same report, seven in 10 adults believe that teen pregnancy prevention programs that are federally funded should primarily support those programs that have been "proven to change behavior related to teen pregnancy" -- just the opposite of the abstinence-only programs, which have been repeatedly proven not to work.

Some parents aren't waiting around for things to get better. Mica Ghimenti, a parent in the Clovis Unified school district, joined two other parents and the ACLU in filing a lawsuit to change the district's sex education curriculum. Ghimenti says that her daughter received no information about condoms, birth control or preventing STIs in health class and that lack of information presented a health risk for students.

She told the L.A. Times, "I want there to be medically accurate, scientifically based education for all youth in Clovis Unified. If we don't give them the information, they won't be able to make good, healthy decisions."

When I first introduce myself to students, I make a pledge to them -- I will never lie to them; I won't exaggerate things to make them seem worse than they are; and if they ask about something I don't know about, I will do my best to get them a real answer.

Like Ghimenti, I don't think it's fair to expect students to make responsible decisions unless they have truthful, reliable information on which to base those decisions.

Resources for Teaching Sex Ed

  • Scarleteen A frank and terrific information and advice site aimed at people in their teens and 20s.
  • Future of Sex Education An organization dedicated to "creating a national dialogue about the future of sex education and to promote the institutionalization of comprehensive sexuality education in public schools." They recently released their "National Sexuality Education Standards."
  • Sex, Etc. A great sexuality information site from Rutgers University written "by teens, for teens." They also publish a print magazine that can be used in classrooms.
  • SexEdLibrary A library of downloadable sex ed lessons, including lessons on human development, sexual anatomy, puberty, sexual orientation, body image, dating, abstinence, and more.
  • Planned Parenthood's "Different is Normal" video, designed to reduce anxiety and body image issues among teenagers.

What sex ed policies does your district have? Do you think they are effective?

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