City and education officials announced recently that New York City schools will revise their HIV/AIDS and sexuality education curricula. The last updates to these curricula were made 10 and 20 years ago, respectively.
Planned Parenthood of New York City illustrated one of the problems with the sexuality education curriculum by pointing out that the Today sponge is still listed as a contraceptive option in spite of the fact that it has been off the market since 1994. Advocates of reproductive and sexual health say that the AIDS curriculum is similarly out of date, especially in light of the new information and knowledge we now have about the virus as well as demographic changes in those populations most at risk.
"We know that half of all new HIV infections occur in young people under the age of 25," said Bill Smith, director of public policy for SIECUS. "Young people need to know that they are at risk and how they can effectively protect themselves. And it needs to be done with the very latest information that we have available."
In New York State, health education is required in every grade. This instruction must include information about HIV/AIDS and prevention of the virus. The law states that all HIV/AIDS education must "provide accurate information to pupils concerning the nature of the disease, methods of transmission, and methods of prevention." Additionally, this instruction "shall stress abstinence as the most appropriate and effective premarital protection against AIDS."
Each school district's board of education is responsible for establishing an advisory council that makes recommendations concerning the formation, implementation, and evaluation of an AIDS curriculum. There is no direct funding to the schools for HIV/AIDS education and only a small amount of funding is provided through the New York State Department of Health for the administration of this program. Consequently, the availability of resources going forward is being questioned.
In the report Failing Grade: Health Education in New York City Schools, State Assemblyman Scott Stringer (D) said that at least 75 percent of City schools are not in compliance with the health education mandates. A New York AIDS Coalition report titled A Call to Reform: Strengthening HIV/AIDS Education in New York City's Public Schools also found that City schools are failing to meet the requirements. A third study, conducted in 2003 by Youth Organizers United, a group of students and recent graduates of New York City public schools, found that only one-third of high school students in New York City had received any HIV/AIDS education since entering high school and only six percent had received all mandated lessons.
On February 5, at a joint New York State Assembly health and education committee hearing to discuss this issue, Schools' Chancellor Joel Klein cited a dearth of resources and explained that unfunded state mandates are hard to fulfill. "City schools have been under-funded for a long time, and it will take time to put the supports and resources in place to overcome these long-standing inequities," he said
Yet, SIECUS' Director of Communications, Adrienne Verrilli, in testifying before the same committee, pointed out that "New York State received more than $7 million in federal funds for unproven abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in Fiscal Year 2003 alone. Specifically, New York received $3.4 million in federal funds in the form of a block grant that it matched with $2.6 million in state funds."
Commenting on this situation, Rebecca Fox, state policy coordinator for SIECUS said, "Anecdotal evidence shows that statewide compliance varies widely, but the issue of whether or not there is enough money is difficult to fully embrace given that $2.6 million of state taxpayer money was spent on potentially harmful and unproven abstinence-only-until-marriage programs."
Another potential obstacle to noncompliance is a lack of trained and qualified teachers. Overall, the city has just 196 health education-prepared teachers for 1.1 million students, officials said.
Dr. Roger Platt, director of the Office of School Health, said, "It is pretty hard to justify to people to invest 30 hours of their time to learn a 20-year-old curriculum." Still, during a community forum that drew 150 people, Dr. Platt recognized, "It's fair to say that we need to do better."
Sexuality education in New York City schools is currently taught in grades eight and 11. That will probably change when the new curricula is implemented. "Adolescent health education should probably begin before the eighth grade," said Dr. Platt.
The sexuality education curriculum could be completed by the end of the year but the HIV/AIDS curriculum will likely take longer because of a required public comment period, education officials said.
In 2003, a poll by Zogby International found that 77 of likely voters in New York State agree that age appropriate, medically accurate sexuality education should be taught in public schools.