Few countries have policies on sex education. In the United States, policies vary from state to state and might depend on whether a school is public or private.
This article, by high school student Sara Kane, was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Sara is a student at the Tatnall School, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.
The only sex education Hannah Morgan can remember getting at her college preparatory high school was a guest speaker who talked about HIV/AIDS. Morgan is in the fourth year at The Tatnall School, a private day school in the U.S. state of Delaware.
“The only sex ed we ever had was in middle school,” Morgan said. “They gave us a book and said, ‘Here, go figure it out yourself.’”
Sex ed is vital to someone’s education because it will equip people with the knowledge and skills they need to make healthy and responsible life choices. The issue is not confined to the United States.
In a global status report on sex education, UNESCO reported that 15% of 155 countries surveyed do not have policies. However, even those with policies don’t consistently deliver comprehensive content effectively.
When Rebecca Whitesell became a guidance counselor at Tatnall, she was surprised that, unlike the previous alternative school she came from, Tatnall didn’t have a sex-ed curriculum.
“My first question is, we do not have health in the upper school?,” Whitesell said. “My second question is, why don’t we have health in the upper school? We definitely need to have speakers to come in and to talk about real sex education.”
In December, Whitesell brought in a speaker from AIDS Delaware, an organization that educates people about HIV/AIDs.
Sex education is not mandated across the United States
My mother, Lisa Kane, is a former Tatnall guidance counselor and has taught sex education at the middle school level. She is concerned about the lack of a sex education curriculum in the high school, particularly with cases of teen pregnancies, students sharing sex videos and accusations of peer-on-peer sexual abuse.
“Unfortunately, none of this was a catalyst for change,” Kane said.
Back in 1912, the National Education Association called for programs that trained teachers in sexuality education, and in 1940, the U.S. Public Health Service strongly advised that sexuality education be taught in schools.
There is a guide states can follow. The National Sex Education Standard (NSES) was first developed in 2012 by a coalition of health and education professionals. But they don’t have to follow these standards. Delaware created its own Comprehensive Health Education Program, for example.
Moreover, private schools are not mandated to follow this program and my school does not. The Tatnall School is an independent school in Delaware established in 1930 with grades kindergarten to 12th grade. It prides itself on creating well-rounded students with “exceptional academics, outstanding athletics, unparalleled arts.”
But without a comprehensive sex-ed curriculum, is my school preparing students?
Curriculum requirements differ from school to school.
To see if my school is unique, I contacted five private schools similar to Tatnall in the area and found out that three of them don’t have a comprehensive sex-ed curriculum.
Bill Schluter heads an advanced, college preparatory program at Tatnall and questions where a sex-ed class would fit in the curriculum. Tatnall’s academic day is already eight hours long, and many students spend another two to three hours doing extracurricular activities. “Something should probably come off the plate if you are adding something on,” said Schluter. “But where is it going to go? And what do we have to give up?”
Brendan Minihan, the head of Tatnall’s middle school, said the current middle school curriculum includes identity, values, consent in relationships, abstinence, human biology, what happens during pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. However, he feels this is not enough.
“The curriculum as it stands is not where I would like it to be,” Minihan said, “It is not a complete comprehensive curriculum. We’ve had so much turnover in that role that we haven’t built up the steam to develop a really robust curriculum.”
While the middle school has minimal sex education, at Tatnall’s Upper School, sex ed is almost non-existent.
Sandra Wermus, a seasoned public school health and physical education teacher at Concord High School, a public school nearby, straddles the public and private school worlds in Delaware as she teaches in a public school but has children who attend Tatnall.
When she learned that Tatnall does not have a sex education course in the high school, she was shocked. “You guys have never had sex ed?” she asked. “That makes me so sad. That breaks my heart.”
Wermus thinks sex education is one of the most important classes and wants to ensure students get the necessary information and tools. “I think sex ed is critical,” Wermus said. “How else are you getting information if you’re not getting it in high school at that age?”
Sex education competes with other school subjects.
Some public school teachers struggle to find time to teach the whole required sex-ed curriculum. Concord High School moved to combine driver’s education and a health class to allocate more time for the sex-ed curriculum.
“The curriculum had more content than we had hours,” Wermus said. “So we weren’t able to meet the curriculum content.”
Delaware State Senator Marie Pinkney said public schools provide condoms and other contraceptives to students who need them, but she believes there should be comprehensive conversations in schools around gender identity and sexual orientation.
“Our schools have the resources they need to provide students with support,” Pinkney said.
Andi Koch is a training coordinator for Planned Parenthood in Delaware, a nonprofit organization that provides health care and sex education. Koch said that some sex education programs overly stress sexual abstinence while failing to include discussions on gender identity and sexual orientation.
“I think putting pressure and stress on abstinence also ignores the fact that students are not practicing abstinence,” Koch said. “I would say stressing abstinence also puts a level of shame on sexuality.”
Safe behavior starts with frank discussions about sex.
The NSES recommends that a sex education curriculum include topics like sexual consent, puberty, sexual and reproductive anatomy, gender identity and sexual orientation. The NSES aims to help adolescents “navigate sexual development and grow into sexually healthy adults.”
However, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Sex Ed for Social Change, Delaware schools do not have to include instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity.
With public schools implementing a watered-down version of the national standards and many private schools choosing to do away with sex ed entirely, are we failing to teach teens safer sexual behavior?
Hannah Morgan wants change to happen in her school even if she is graduating. She wants the underclassman to have a better education than she did.
“We need real sex education in high school,” Morgan said. “It should be a mandatory class. It’s stupid that we don’t.”
Three questions to consider:
- What are some topics that a comprehensive sex education program might include?
- Why do many educators feel that sex education at the secondary school level should be mandatory?
- Why is sex education controversial in many parts of the world?
Sara Kane is in her final year at the Tatnall School in Wilmington, Delaware. Her favorite subjects are Art and Physics. Next year she plans to continue her academic career by studying Engineering.