What are kids learning in school sex ed? Not enough, these students say

  • Brynn Goggins and Kamini Waldman in front of Northampton High School, where they are advocating for change in how sex education is taught. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brynn Goggins and Kamini Waldman stand in front of Northampton High School, where they are advocating for change in how sex education is taught. Below, Anna Stanforth, who has testified at the State House on a sex education bill, is shown last week at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brynn Goggins and Kamini Waldman in front of Northampton High School, where they are advocating for change in how sex education is taught. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Anna Stanforth at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst, Wednesday, June 26, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Anna Stanforth at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst, Wednesday, June 26, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Anna Stanforth at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst, Wednesday, June 26, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/2/2019 12:11:40 AM

HADLEY — When 18-year-old Anna Stanforth was in the ninth grade, her classmates and friends started asking her a lot of questions about sex.

For instance: “What do condoms do?” Or: “How do you know that you’re pregnant?”

“Basic stuff,” said Stanforth, a recent graduate of Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, while sitting at a coffee shop in Amherst, where she lives.

Stanforth soon discovered that she was more informed than many of her classmates. That’s largely because every Sunday night for half a year in ninth grade, she took Our Whole Lives, a church-sponsored comprehensive sexuality education course at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst.

“We talked about sex and uncomfortable topics,” Stanforth recalled, “so I would definitely often complain about it vocally in class.”

Some of her classmates at the charter school knew she was in a church sex-education program and would ask her questions about topics they hadn’t covered in class yet.

In tenth grade, Stanforth said, the sex education was better, but in ninth grade, “People were already sexually active.”

Once, a classmate came to her wondering if she could be pregnant. “What had happened wouldn’t lead to someone getting pregnant,” Stanforth recalled.

Attempts to reach the administration at the charter school were unsuccessful. But Stanforth told her own story in early June to Massachusetts state senators and representatives, testifying before the joint committee on education in support of a bill that would change how sex education is taught.

Under “An Act relative to healthy youth,” if a school offers sex education, it must be age-appropriate, medically accurate and LGBTQ inclusive. It also must teach about consent, abstinence and safe sex. Parents and guardians would be able to opt their students out of the program.

“This isn’t a radical bill,” said Cherilyn Strader, a recent Northampton High School graduate who testified in support of the bill. “It’s just trying to give students across the state the same education that they deserve so that, going into their futures, they can live out safe and healthy lives.”

Survey says

It’s not a new idea. The Healthy Youth Act, as it is commonly known, has been in the Legislature for eight years. “It’s so basic, and yet it’s still a struggle,” said state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, a co-sponsor and longtime supporter of the bill.

In Massachusetts, there aren’t any requirements for what schools teach about sex — they actually don’t need to provide sex education at all, according to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) spokeswoman Helene Bettencourt.

If schools do teach sex ed, DESE provides guidelines teachers can use, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Health Curriculum Framework, which was written in 1999. The department is “in the process of reviewing and revising” the document, Bettencourt wrote in an email.

The Gazette interviewed students across the county about their experience with sex-ed classes at their schools and found that many say their high school sex education falls short, including not enough explanation about consent or a lack of information for LGBTQ students. Several students are trying to improve that education by changing the culture around sex ed in their own schools, while others are pushing for the Healthy Youth Act.

At the start of the 2018-19 school year, the Northampton High School student union distributed a survey asking what students thought were the biggest problems in the school.

“We got a lot of people saying sex ed,” said Brynn Goggins, a 16-year-old student union representative who just finished her junior year.

They did a survey this past winter specifically about sex education, asking 46 students in Grades 10 to 12 across three English classes to state their grade, circle the gender they identify with (female, male, non-binary or prefer not to say) and rate the curriculum on a variety of factors, such as how up to date, helpful and consistent it is.

Eighty-seven percent of students said the sex education curriculum should be changed in response to one question. In response to another, 80.4 percent of students said they did not get all the “necessary information” from their sex-ed classes.

Wellness curriculum

In the district, sex education is taught as part of a semester-long wellness course that has seven units, including ones on nutrition, mental health and addiction, alcohol, tobacco and drugs.

Nancy Cheevers, director of curriculum and assessment at the Northampton Public Schools, said the wellness curriculum follows the National Health Education Standards, K-12 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The district does have a specific curriculum spelled out, including how long should be spent on each of its units in the wellness course, one of which looks at sexuality and relationships. Sex education is taught in middle school, and fifth-grade teachers updated the puberty curriculum about a year ago to make it more LGBTQ-inclusive. Starting in kindergarten, students are taught about healthy relationships and work up to talking about consent.

“We do have a comprehensive curriculum,” Cheevers said. “It’s really a fact-based curriculum based on science and the social-emotional needs of adolescents and the need for accurate information.” She said it also covers gender and sexuality.

Kamini Waldman, an NHS student who just finished her freshman year, said her wellness class included about three days dedicated to sex education, while Goggins said her class spent three weeks on it, enough time for her to feel like she got a “really good education.”

About 91 percent of students surveyed said they felt the curriculum varied too much, depending on the wellness teacher.

A lack of LGBTQ inclusion

Another major issue Waldman and Goggins identified was a lack of LGBTQ inclusion.

In the survey, there was a blank space for additional comments. “A lot of people would say, ‘I’m gay, and I don’t feel like I got enough of an education,’” Goggins said. “I feel like we got a lot of comments saying that they didn’t feel like it was touched on enough, and it didn’t focus on ways to be safe.”

In the wellness class Waldman took this past spring, she noticed an absence of LGBTQ topics. “There wasn’t any same-sex talk that we went over in my class,” she said. “It was your heterosexual relationship — that was the main thing covered.”

When students don’t get adequate sex education, Waldman and Goggins said, they often turn to less-than-reliable sources.

“If you’re not comfortable having those conversations with your parents, and you’re not getting a good education from school, you’re getting it online, you’re getting it from some sort of media source, you’re getting it from your friends in a gossip chain,” Waldman said.

“I think a lot of people rely on conversations with their friends,” Goggins added, “just hearing things, I guess, which is also a really unreliable thing.”

The students have met with some of the wellness teachers and school administrators to talk about ways to improve the curriculum. The changes Waldman and Goggins want to see at NHS line up with the Healthy Youth Act, they said. So far, they said, teachers and administrators have been supportive.

“They want to help us,” Goggins. “We’re definitely not pushing against this administration that doesn’t want to change anything.”

“If anything, we’re working with the administration,” Waldman said.

The students don’t blame their teachers, who have a limited amount of time to teach about a lot of important issues, such as nutrition and juuling.

Students at other schools in the Valley voiced similar concerns about their schools’ sex education.

Zoe Lemos, a student at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School, also went to the State House hearing.

“Someone was talking about how they have this sex ed class every year, and it’s terrible,” Lemos recalled of one person’s testimony. “I was like, ‘You have one every year? I haven’t had one since seventh grade.’”

When Lemos was in seventh grade, the school had a dedicated health class. Since then, it has rolled health into seventh-and-eighth-grade science, said Laura Davis, director of arts and academics at PVPA.

Lemos spoke in support of the bill at the State House, writing part of her testimony during the hearing.

“I am a part of the LGBTQ+ community, and I wasn’t able to take anything from my sex ed class because the material didn’t reflect my identity,” she said in her testimony.

“I was taught by a straight, white man who I have nothing against — he was very nice — however, he knew absolutely nothing about LGBTQ+ sex.”

Elaborating on her testimony recently, she said, “We learned about how straight sex works. And then, we learned about lesbians — look, they exist.”

Other topics were not brought up.

“I have a friend who is intersex,” she said, referring to people who are born neither biologically female or male, “and we didn’t even touch on that.”

An inclusive curriculum would not only make students more aware and accepting; it would also be helpful for LGBTQ students, Lemos said.

“The most evidence I’ve gotten from people excluded from health class is all my friends asking each other questions and being confused about things,” she said. “These are all things they should have learned in health class.”

Davis said the school reviews its curriculum every five years, and when the next cycle comes up in 2021, “We would use LGBTQIA inclusiveness as a lens for curriculum revisions for our sex-ed program.” LGBTQIA stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual.

Regarding sex education in general, Davis said, “This is definitely a gap in our curriculum. We need more work in this area.”

Madison Rinker, a student leader of Easthampton High School’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), said that some ninth graders in health class come to her saying they feel excluded.

In general, she said, “I feel most LGBT youths teach themselves, if they need to know, if they are going into some sexual act … because they know people aren’t going to teach them.”

Teaching consent

One of the biggest issues Stanforth saw with sex education was consent. She remembers her class at the charter school talking about it, but not going into depth. Students would ask her questions about it, wondering if certain hypothetical situations would be considered consensual or not.

Stanforth said she heard a lot of misconceptions about what consent means and realized there were points the students didn’t understand. “You can withdraw consent even if the act has started,” she said, offering examples. “The fact is that if you’re drunk, highly intoxicated, you can’t give consent.”

During her junior year, Stanforth and a friend in the GSA teamed up for a school project to make a 40-minute presentation about consent, and in her last two years of high school, she presented it to ninth graders at the school and at a Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network conference.

“I remember the first time was pretty terrifying, I’d say, because you’re talking about sex and it’s an uncomfortable topic,” Stanforth said.

In the workshop, they dove into the definition of consent and broke it down with a mnemonic found online. “We used the acronym FRIES to describe what consent is, which I actually think is pretty helpful ... it’s freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic and specific.”

They went through example situations, asking students if they were consensual or not.

“You hear a lot in the media that the way to prevent sexual assault is by not dressing a certain way, by not acting a certain way,” Stanforth said. “But that’s sort of placing a lot of the blame on the victims, and you don’t learn a lot about, ‘what is consent?’”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

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