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October 1994 | Volume 52 | Number 2
Reporting What Students Are Learning
When my son was 14, he joined a program that prepared him to be a peer AIDS educator at his middle school in New York City. At several after-school workshops he learned various ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. One day, when my wife picked him up from a training session, he was holding a condom. “Here, Ma,” he said. “Keep it in the glove compartment in case you need it.” My wife, needless to say, was a little embarrassed.
But we are glad he got that condom. At a time when it is frequently difficult for parents to talk with teenagers, that condom opened up avenues for us to discuss AIDS and birth control with our son. The embarrassment was a small price to pay for his protection from disease and premature fatherhood.
In New York City and around the country, the controversy surrounding sex education and condom availablity programs for teenagers in public high schools continues. Many parents worry that sex educaton and condom availability encourage increased teenage sex, but studies across the United States repeatedly demonstrate that teenagers are already having sex at younger and younger ages without protection from pregnancy and disease.
According to the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, by age 16, 17 percent of girls and 29 percent of boys have had sexual intercourse. As a result, 67 percent of all births to teenagers in 1989 occurred out of wedlock (compared with 30 percent in 1970), and from 1960 to 1988, gonorrhea increased by four times among 10- to 14-year-olds.
In the November 1993 issue of Educational Leadership, Thomas Lickona declared that sex education and condom availability programs have failed. He called for “chastity education” to promote self-control and the “application of core ethical values” among teenagers. In the following issue, Robert Simonds, president of Citizens for Excellence in Education, presented his organization's opposition to sex education, condom availability, and other programs, describing them as “child abuse in the classroom.” I want to address some of the arguments made by Lickona, Simonds, and others who oppose these programs.
Some opponents of sex education and condom availability programs argue that these programs violate the right of parents to educate their children about moral behavior and religious values. But as far as I know, no sex education program in the United States removes a parent or religious leader's right to teach teenagers the values that they consider to be important, including sexual abstinence. What parents and religious leaders no longer have is the right to use the public schools to impose their personal religious beliefs on their teenagers and on other people's teenage children.
Some parents, politicians, and educators have questioned whether making condoms available should be the job of the school. They argue that school should be a place for learning math and reading and science, not how to put on a condom. But public high schools are the best place to provide sex education and make condoms available to teenagers—that's where the teenagers are, and that's where there are adults who are trained and willing to counsel them. I am convinced that if teenagers openly received condoms in school instead of in bathrooms or from friends who have had them in their pockets for months, they would be more willing to use them.
Few educators would argue that schools should not be involved in teaching about values. Sex education and condom availability programs are an ideal way to teach responsibility for self and others, for exploring the meaning of human relationships, and for addressing “male machismo” and the lack of respect for women in our society. A sex education curriculum also helps students to understand their science lessons on human sexuality, reproduction, and the spread of disease; and to understand their social studies lessons on social relationships, the development of cultural norms, and the role of responsible citizens.
Thomas Lickona seems particularly concerned with the development of character and with finding ways for teachers and schools to help young people examine their values and make responsible choices in their lives. With that in mind, I would like to share the words of two of my students who have shown that they can grapple with complex moral and political issues.
Until 1991, I was a high school social studies teacher in a working-class, minority New York City neighborhood and the faculty advisor to the school's Forum Club. The club brought speakers to the school to discuss controversial issues, and it organized students to be active participants in our democratic society.
Dorcas Matos represented the Forum Club at a New York City Hall rally against “parental consent laws.” She told the audience:
It was not easy for me to decide to be pro-choice. I come from a religious Hispanic family. My father is the pastor of my church. I attend church every Friday night and every Sunday morning. My father is not happy with my positions on these issues because he opposes the idea of abortion. But regardless of his personal feelings, my father has supported my right to choose my own beliefs.
I believe that if I were pregnant, I would be able get my parents' support whatever my choice. But just because I am able to talk to my parents doesn't mean that I think that informing someone's parents should be the law....
Often teenagers have bad relationships with their parents, and they are unable to talk with them about anything. A law that required parental consent before an abortion would not create a better relationship. It would only lead to explosions.
Novia Condell represented the Forum Club at a New York City Board of Education public hearing on condom availability in high schools. Novia told the board:
It is certainly not a secret that many high school students are sexually active today. While some are very conscious and practice “safe sex,” many do not. Many teenagers ... deny that they can be victims of sexually transmitted diseases. They think that they are invulnerable. Condom availability in the schools, when combined with a comprehensive program of sex education, would help teenagers become more sexually responsible. This would lead to fewer teenage pregnancies and fewer sexually transmitted disease. My advice is “Save a Life—Use a Condom!”
These young women represent the kind of thoughtful, moral high school students that Thomas Lickona and other advocates of “character education” hope to encourage. Their commitment and their knowledge empower them. They have a sense of their potential and worth as human beings; a sense of responsibility toward themselves, their peers, and their families; and an awareness of how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies if they decide to be sexually active.
As a parent and as an educator, I agree with encouraging sexual abstinence and moral character among teenagers. But at the same time that we encourage sexual abstinence, we must also teach about sexual responsibility. And sexual responsibility today often means using a condom as a form of birth control and to prevent pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS.
Sex education teachers, guidance counselors, and trained peer educators should be available for counseling and to distribute condoms. Teenagers who are sexually active need to be able to get them without feeling awkward. Remember, pregnancy and disease, not abstinence, are the consequences of such embarrassment.
Lickona, T. (November 1993). “The Return of Character Education.” Educational Leadership 51, 3: 6–11.
Lickona, T. (November 1993). “Where Sex Education Went Wrong.” Educational Leadership 51, 3: 84–89
Simonds, R. L. (December 1993/January 1994). “A Plea for the Children.” Educational Leadership 51, 4: 12–15.
Alan Singer is Assistant Professor of Education, Department of Curriculum and Teaching, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY 11550. He is on the Board of Directors of the United Community Centers, which conducts HIV/AIDS education programs in Brooklyn under a grant from the Centers for Disease Control.
Copyright © 1994 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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