Monday, February 4, 2019

The only class that can save your life

The Worcester School Committee takes up their sex ed curriculum at this Thursday's meeting.
I haven't posted about this because I'm appalled at how outlandish this conversation is.

Let's begin with a crucial founding point: under Massachusetts General Law Ch. 71, sec. 32A, any parent or guardian must be informed about sex ed taking place in schools ahead of time, must be given the ability review materials, and may, upon doing so in writing and without scholastic penalty to the child, pull the child from that portion of the class. The corresponding policy, as required by MGL 71, 32A, is IHAMA, found online here.
Let us thus set aside any arguments that begin or end with "no child of mine." The Legislature dealt with that objection decades ago.

Let's next tackle this notion that "something is better than nothing." This is quite objectively not the case. We can teach people information that is incorrect, that is actively harmful, that otherwise does actual damage to students under our care.

This is most of concern about students who we know to be most at risk or vulnerable. This includes LGBTQ students, of whom no mention is made in the administration-proposed "Michigan model." Thus it was proposed at the last meeting that a "component" on such experience must be added. The administration's response, backing up this week's agenda, was to print out the section on LGBTQ students from DESE's website, add two pages on "integrating LQBTQ initiatives across the district through increasing professional development for all staff and to develop inclusive curricular content across disciplines" with no specifics beyond links back to DESE, insist that really it's kinda included already, and dismiss suggestions that other curricula should be investigated with the response:
The Administration has reviewed numerous curricula and based on the appropriateness for students, it recommends the Sex Education Unit from the Michigan Comprehensive Health Curriculum.
Yes, that really is all that is said: no list of what was reviewed, by whom, on what standard, or otherwise.

You'll have to go back an agenda to see what it is they're actually discussing which is this curriculum, billed as "comprehensive" and this sample lesson.
It is hard to know where to begin.
One of the most important principles of quality health education is to recognize that people are integrated organisms, that sexuality is not a separate issue with no relationship to anything else in one's life, and that anything about human health involves more than the biology involved. This is one reason that one cannot relegate LGBTQ identity and experience to an "added component."
The sample lesson provided on the reproductive system thus is not a health lesson at all. It is a biology lesson.
It is clear, however, that this is the approach of the module provided, which is not, by its own description a comprehensive sexual education curriculum, but instead is a module on the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.
Also, note how well it, by its own admission, meets the National Health Standards per scanned page 59:

This is clear from the beginning, as lesson one, rather than a conversation about healthy relationships, decisionmaking, relating to oneself and others, or any of the other foundational discussions of health, it begins with prevention of HIV.
The only two options available to those conducting the lesson in this curriculum are "abstinence-based" and "abstinence-only" discussions. We know from years of research that those options not only ineffective; they are unethical. As the main concern raised in the community is that of teen pregnancy, it would be important to note:
...abstinence-only education as a state policy is ineffective in preventing teenage pregnancy and may actually be contributing to the high teenage pregnancy rates in the U.S.
Thus, yes, doing something can make it worse.
From lesson one, the curriculum proposed then goes on to lesson two:
 You are reading that correctly: it is a list of sexually transmitted disease handouts. Again, this is lesson 2.
Lesson 3: finding help if you need it. This lesson, quite literally, is now that we've spent two lessons listing sexually transmitted diseases, let's talk about figuring out if you have them; this includes a "healthy or not" card game with symptoms of STDs and a section on using resources like a phone book.

Lesson 4 is on creating a plan "to stay within boundaries" to avoid STDs and pregnancy. Again, this isn't about making thoughtful, informed choices or having healthy relationships; the goal given at the beginning of the lesson (p. 159) quite explictly is avoiding pregnancy and disease. The analogy made throughout is to building a fence.

Let's consider for a moment what that teaches students about relationships: it's about barriers. Note also where that places responsibility: with the fence builder, rather than with two people involved in a relationship respecting each other's choices. This, too, is a theme throughout the curriculum, as students are taught about setting limits and enforcing them for themselves, but not about observing the limits of others.
Again, the reason given throughout this lesson is about avoiding disease and pregnancy. There is no other underlying reason or relationship referenced.
Lesson 5 finally gets to communication, something which a comprehensive curriculum would have as a foundation. It is, however, about communicating one's boundaries, not about having respectful relationships, connecting with other people, or about communicating in any other realm. There is no connection here to the whole person involved.
Lesson 6 is identifying and refusing troubling situations. Discussion of troubling situations and indeed of unhealthy relationships with regard to abuse, mental health, and myriad other realms of student health are enormously important components of this dicussion which should be integrated. It is not. This is entirely an isolated dicussion, which, as above, leaves it to the individual being pressured to escape, rather than teaching students that pressuring others is wrong. This is the sort of teaching that comes from rape culture; it is a victim blaming set-up; it is harmful; it is wrong.
Lesson 7 is more of this: avoiding and escaping such situtations; it includes the following handout (p. 243).

This is a terrible substitution for teaching about the age of consent (which, for the record, is also 16 in Massachusetts).
Lesson 8 is called "Someday, Not Now" actually has students talk through making decisions, 'though clearly with a direction since "not now" is in the title. This also includes condom--but no other birth control or barrier--directions. This of course again leaves out many students, and also utterly fails to give comprehensive information of a kind that is most needed if our interest is truly in avoiding teen pregnancy.

And that is what the Worcester Public Schools administration is recommending to the Worcester School Committee for adoption to teach our seventh and eighth grade students. 
It should be rejected out of hand for the real harm this will do students.

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