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Robin Pickering: Sex-education curriculum reflects reality

The recent school board decision to postpone a vote to adopt the “Get Real” curriculum (developed in part by Planned Parenthood) should be cause for concern in our community.

Some of the stated community and board concerns raised in response to the proposal to update the curriculum include: Planned Parenthood involvement in its development, the inclusion of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) issues and terminology, the inclusion of discussion of contraceptives (versus abstinence-only approach), the concern that the curriculum is not “representing our society” and concern for teachers who have “philosophical differences” with the curriculum content.

As a mother of a teen who was educated in the district, a concerned citizen of the Spokane community and a local professor of health and human sexuality who has taught in the community for 14 years, I feel I can share some worthwhile perspective in response to these concerns.

I vividly remember conducting a lecture to future teachers discussing how to most effectively teach youth about sexuality. I asked the university students to reflect on what was effective in their sexuality education experiences in middle and high school and what made it so. After the lecture, I was approached by an articulate male student (who identified as gay) who said something to me that will forever change the way in which I teach. It was something like this:

“In high school, I remember (local sex-ed teacher) talking about sex being between a man and a woman and all the diseases that you could get from that. She also talked about pregnancy and how it happened. I had been engaging in what I later learned to be high-risk consensual sex, which had started in junior high. But what I was doing didn’t look anything like what the teacher was describing, so I thought I was safe. In fact, I didn’t even know that what I was doing was sex until after high school.”

He was the first of several throughout my teaching career who would share similar experiences.

According to 2016 Gallup Poll data, 4.1 percent of American adults identify as LGBT, which equates to 10 million people. And according to recent data from the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), there are approximately 1.3 million American high school students who identify as LGBT. As a person who often has the honor of engaging in meaningful (and personal) conversations with youth, I can assure you that issues surrounding the LGBT community are indeed “representing our society.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, students who identify as LGBT are two times as likely to have experienced physical or sexual dating violence, are more likely to skip school because they feel unsafe, are more likely to be bullied, are at greater risk for depression, are more than four times more likely to have attempted suicide, are at greater risk of substance use and are more likely to engage in sexual behavior that can place them at increased risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Additionally, in 2014 young gay and bisexual males accounted for 8 out of 10 HIV diagnoses among youth.

These students do not deserve to be brushed aside because meeting their specific curriculum concerns makes educators, school board members or our community uncomfortable. I am not particularly fond of math; should I be exempt from covering the odds ratio section in my epidemiology courses? Isn’t the goal of public education to meet the needs of the public?

To address some of these significant disparities, the CDC recommends that health curricula or educational materials include HIV, other sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy prevention information, as well as information that is relevant to LGBT youth, such as ensuring that curricula or materials use inclusive language and terminology (as is included in the proposed “Get Real” curriculum).

While doing an internet search for “purpose of a public education,” I found many responses. But the most common statements included phrases like, “help students fulfill their potential” and “prepare students for a satisfying and productive life.” Nowhere did I see qualifiers like “prepare some students to fulfill their potential,” or “prepare only the students who have beliefs and behaviors consistent with teachers’ philosophical perspectives for a productive and satisfying life.”

We owe it to all of our youth to deliver an up-to-date, evidence-based education that best prepares each to be healthy and productive citizens, regardless of whose name is on the curriculum package.

Robin Pickering, Ph.D, is an associate professor of health sciences at Whitworth University.


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