If you want to know what’s being taught in sex education classes around New York City, like maybe where students are receiving newly approved condom instructions, I’m sorry—you can’t. You could try asking the city’s Department of Education, but they likely won’t be able to tell you, either.
That’s because right now, as city policy currently stands, most of the guidelines for what should be taught in a comprehensive sex education class are merely recommendations, not hard and fast requirements. And because New York City has just so many campuses—more than 1,800 by the Department of Education’s count—it’s nearly impossible to keep up with what exactly is being taught at each school, much less in each health classroom.
Why does this matter for anyone who doesn't have a direct relationship with the NYC school system? Well, about 1.1 million students attend public school in New York, making the city's school system as the largest in the country. By sheer virtue of its size, it has the power to set an example for school systems elsewhere. It's also one of the most diverse school systems in the country—making its mandatory sexual health education a good litmus test for what does and doesn't work when it comes to influencing teen sexual behavior nationwide.
But it’s hard to know how the city’s sex education is influencing students around the five boroughs when no one is really tracking what’s being taught. This is why three bills that would require the Department of Education to be more diligent in tracking and mandating were introduced by a New York City Council committee last Tuesday at a hearing at City Hall.
If passed, the three bills—introduced by a joint committee with members from the Committee on Health and the Committee on Women's Issues—wouldn't necessarily alter the content being taught in New York City schools, but they would require the Department of Education to pay closer attention to what's being taught, when it's being taught, and who’s teaching it.
New York City has predictably good standards for what students should learn in a sexual health course. You can read about them here, if you’d like. The city’s Department of Education also makes completion of a sex ed course—which lasts for one semester—a requirement to graduate. Compared to laws in other states, like Alabama, Texas, or Tennessee, it’s a good mandate. But—by sheer virtue of the number of students it has to serve, and the incredible variance of their backgrounds—it’s still not good enough.
The weaknesses in New York’s law can mostly be attributed to how many people it has to serve, as well as the personal misgivings that come into play any time giving information about sex to preteens and teenagers is discussed. Because of a loophole in Department of Education policy—explained by Roger Platt, the CEO for the Department of Education’s Office of School Health, at the hearing—a vast majority of New York City’s health education instructors aren’t actually licensed to teach health education. By Platt’s estimate, there are about 160 licensed health ed teachers. When asked how many unlicensed instructors are teaching students about sex and healthy relationships in the city, he said he didn’t know, but that it’s “substantially more than 160.”
One of the bills would not only require the Department of Education to track the number of licensed versus unlicensed sexual health instructors, but would also require the Department to report those numbers to City Council and post them, for public consumption, on their website each year. The other two bills are similar. They all operate on the fact that the Department of Education knows startlingly little about what’s being taught, and—since they were passed in 2011—hasn’t been checking to make sure campuses around the city are adhering to the state’s comprehensive sex ed requirements.
As it stands now, the nuances of the sex ed curriculum are left up to the discretion of the principal of each school, which is a standard that allows for a lot of wiggle room. And the Department of Education doesn't currently know how that discretion is affecting students.
Last month, I met with Miajia Jawara, a senior at A. Philip Randolph Campus High School in Harlem. As a sexual health youth leader with BronxWorks—a local group that offers programs designed to better the lives of Bronx residents—Jawara is more well-versed than most 17-year-olds in sexual health instruction and how important it can be.
Over coffee, she told me about how her own high school sex ed course—which she took two years ago as a sophomore—was so slight, she didn’t even realize she’d taken one.
“It was really vague, I didn’t even know I had had it until a couple months later, when I asked why I hadn’t had it yet,” Jawara told me. “They never really focused on sex ed, but that was supposed to be a part of it. It was never really focused on, in the same way as healthy relationships and alcohol and drugs and stuff like that.”
She said her class didn’t include any information about contraception, even though instruction on medically accurate contraceptive methods is outlined in the New York City Department of Education standards. She did say that she and all of her classmates received a little black book that listed clinics they could go to for birth control, and other such "resources."
“At the time I didn’t know how to associate the word ‘resources’ with sex ed, so I threw mine away,” Jawara said. “They gave us these books but we couldn’t really use them.”
Compare her experience to the one Lilly Hershey-Webb had as a freshman at Millennium High School, a public school in Manhattan’s financial district. At last week's hearing, Hershey-Webb was sworn in to testify before the committee and recount her own experience as a teenager in New York City’s public school system.
“In ninth grade at Millennium High School, I was taught one semester about STDs, how they’re transmitted, and how to protect myself from contracting one,” Hershey-Webb spoke into the microphone. “I learned about methods of contraceptives, and how to protect myself from unintended pregnancies and STDs.”
Hershey-Webb went on to say that while she was pleased with her sex ed course, she wished it had been more LGBT inclusive and included more information on consent and healthy relationships. She also wished it had lasted longer than a few weeks.
It seems like if you combined Hershey-Webb’s class with Jawara’s class, you might end up with a full, inclusive curriculum that could feasibly prepare a teenager for sex and dating. But because the two girls go to different schools, they received different information. It’s the same kind of problem that exists between counties in states like Alabama, a conservative state where sex education is mandatory but not often properly delivered. But in New York, it exists block by block, and sometimes within singular buildings that house multiple schools.
We know for a fact that most of New York City's 1.1 million students will have sex before they graduate. But how prepared each of those students will be when it happens for them may depend on their address, and ultimately which high school they attend.
“I have friends from different schools, and when we come together, we talk about the things we learn in class,” Jawara told me. “When it comes to sex, specifically, we have different information. We’re just getting patches of information and not everything together. We’re just getting what it is the principal feels like we should know. And we should really know everything.”
Hannah Smothers is a reporter for Fusion's Sex & Life section, a Texpat, and a former homecoming princess.