NEW YORK — A new sex-education mandate in New York City could have middle-school students visiting local pharmacies to catalogue condom brands, among other problematic assignments.
A new coalition, the NYC Parents’ Choice Coalition, is urging parents to contact New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the schools’ chancellor, Dennis Walcott, to demand an abstinence alternative, as well as telling their local schools that they want to opt their children out of the school system’s new comprehensive sex-ed curriculum, which is set to take effect in January.
Mike Benjamin, a former New York Democratic state assemblyman and current executive director of the NYC Parents’ Choice Coalition, said the curriculum offers a “wink and a nod” in encouraging students to have sex “when they’re ready.”
“Parents want their kids to resist the pressures to have sex,” Benjamin said. “Young people look to adults to be role models. This curriculum does not do that, and, in fact, it creates a divide between the parent and child by undermining the values parents try to teach at home.”
“All we’re asking for is for the Board of Education to provide an option for families who desire to choose an abstinence-based curriculum,” Benjamin added.
The coalition, which includes religious and pro-abstinence organizations such as the Chiaroscuro Foundation, the National Abstinence Education Association and Clergy for Better Choices, has made more than 20,000 “robo calls” in New York City to mobilize support.
The city’s two Republican congressmen — Bob Turner, R-Queens, Brooklyn, and Michael Grimm, R-Staten Island, Brooklyn — recently joined the coalition, which holds the position that parents do not have a voice in the new mandate.
“Parents are feeling that the city is working against them on this issue,” said Greg Pfundstein, a coalition member and executive director of the Chiaroscuro Foundation, a nonprofit that funds pro-life and education projects.
Pfundstein said the coalition has scheduled a meeting with Walcott in early November to air their grievances and to make their case for an abstinence option.
“The coalition is not opposed to sex education in principle. But we believe there should be an alternative, and that is why I think people are giving us a fair hearing,” Pfundstein said.
The New York City Department of Education says the curriculum will include lessons on abstinence and purity, resisting sexual pressure and avoiding high-risk situations.
“Abstinence is a very important part of the curriculum, but we also have a responsibility to ensure that teenagers who are choosing to have sex understand the potential consequences of their actions and know how to keep themselves safe. So we need a comprehensive curriculum, and it needs to be consistent throughout our schools,” Walcott said in a prepared statement.
“Abstinence is the only way to be 100% safe — but one-third of the new cases of chlamydia in New York City are in teenagers, and a significant percentage of our teenagers have had multiple sexual partners, so we can’t stick our heads in the sand about this,” Walcott added.
Bloomberg said during an Oct. 24 press conference that it is the “responsibility of the city to explain to the kids the risks.”
“We preach abstinence in the sense that we say the only sure ways to not get pregnant, the only sure ways to not get a sexually transmitted disease, is to abstain from sex. And if parents don’t think that it’s an appropriate message for their children, they can remove their children from a class,” Bloomberg said.
“But we have a responsibility when you have an out-of-wedlock birth rate and a sexually transmitted-disease rate that we have in this city to try to do something about it. Shame on us, if we don’t.”
In August, Walcott wrote a letter to middle- and high-school principals citing statistics that show many public-school students are having sex before age 13, are having multiple sex partners, and not protecting themselves against sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. According to the 2005 “Youth Risk Behavior Survey” data, 41% of New York City youth reported becoming sexually active by ninth grade and 58% by 12th grade.
The sex-education mandate falls under the umbrella of Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative, a $127 million, three-year plan to confront racial and ethnic disparities and raise the performance outcomes of the city’s young black and Latino men.
But the parent’s coalition and Catholic leaders in New York City continue to raise concerns about the new curriculum. In a prepared statement, Bishop Nicolas DiMarzio of Brooklyn previously said the mandate was “one more example of political agendas being forced on children and their families.”
The parents’ coalition also cites problematic segments of the curriculum, including classroom instruction that would have sixth- and seventh-grade students learning about condom use. Other assignments also have high-school students cataloguing condom brands at area stores or listing birth-control options at local family-planning clinics.
Nanci Coppola, executive director of program reach and the Healthy Respect Program, a member organization of the coalition, said the schools’ curriculum teaches to the lowest common denominator while presenting abstinence as behavior that is not normal or expected for teens.
“Basically, what they’re saying is: ‘These kids are going to have sex, and we need to protect them’ instead of helping them to have the self-confidence to make healthy choices,” said Coppola, who argues that evidence proves that abstinence-based programs best prevent teen pregnancy and STDs.
“We want kids to realize the best way to avoid pregnancy and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sex and delay it for a long-term, monogamous relationship, such as marriage,” Coppola said.
The National Abstinence Education Association cites 22 abstinence-centered curricula that have been evaluated by independent researchers and found to have statistically significant results in reducing teen sex. Among those programs are Game Plan, Aspire, Choosing the Best and WAIT Training.
“An abstinence-based curriculum reinforces your decision to remain chaste,” said Benjamin, who added that parents are only seeking another option from the comprehensive curriculum.
Meanwhile, Coppola said New York City’s Board of Education is not being forthcoming in its statements that students will also learn about abstinence in the new curriculum.
“It’s not even close to being a 50-50 split. The time spent on abstinence is minimal,” Coppola said.
Pfundstein said it appears the school system is pushing an ideologically based vision of sex education.
“Their claim to be values-neutral is not accurate,” he said.
“When you send students to the corner store to catalogue condom brands that is not merely a suggestion of giving kids accurate information. There is clearly an effort to give them a specific doctrine of sexuality that parents may not agree with.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from New Bedford, Massachusetts.