New York City Mandates Sex Ed Classes for Public School Kids

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When New York City’s public school students return to classes this year, there will be a new addition to their curriculum: sex education classes that will include instruction on how to use a condom and strategies for resisting pressure to have sex.

On Tuesday, the city announced a new mandate requiring sex-ed classes for middle and high school students. The program is part of a larger city measure, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $127 million Young Men’s Initiative, announced on Aug. 4, which seeks to improve the lives of young black and Latino men in the city (the initiative will also focus on job training, counseling for criminal offenders, and fatherhood classes).

City officials hope that the sex-ed mandate will reach teens of color, who have disproportionately high rates of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). “It’s obviously something that applies to all boys and all girls,” Linda I. Gibbs, the New York City’s deputy mayor for health and human services told the New York Times. “But when we look at the biggest disadvantages that kids in our city face, it is blacks and Latinos that are most affected by the consequences of early sexual behavior and unprotected sex.”

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Indeed, according to the latest data [PDF] from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the five city neighborhoods with the highest rates of chlamydia among teens aged 15 to 19 were also some of the poorest: Crotona, Central Harlem, Mott Haven, the Northeast Bronx and East Harlem. Neighborhoods with the highest rates of gonorrhea, another common STI, were similarly disadvantaged.

Statistics on teen pregnancy [PDF] show that rates of unplanned births in 2009 were also highest in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, such as Mott Haven, East New York and Brownsville. Nearly 12% of all babies born in the Bronx that year were born to teen mothers, compared with 5.2% in wealthier Manhattan. Citywide, 85% of new teen mothers were on Medicaid at the time of birth.

The idea is for the new sex-ed classes to tackle these problems head-on. They will include candid discussions about puberty, pregnancy, birth control and the risks of unprotected sex, city officials said; parents will have to option to keep their children out of classes on birth control.

The overarching agenda is to get teens to wait to have sex until they are older. According to the Times:

The classes would include a mix of lectures, perhaps using statistics to show that while middle school students might brag about having sex, not many of them actually do; group discussions about, for example, why teenagers are often resistant to condoms; and role-playing exercises that might include techniques to fend off unwanted advances.

Until now, teaching sex ed has been voluntary for New York City public schools (the state mandates only one semester of health education classes); about 64% of the city’s middle schools and somewhere between 40% and 80% of high schools currently teach a sex education curriculum. Nationwide, about 25% of teens learn about abstinence in schools, without education about other methods of birth control, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Local media reports suggest that New York parents are having mixed reactions to the city’s new mandate. Some say the city is intruding on issues that are better handled by parents at home. Others say that city schools should focus on subjects other than sex.

But parents are not blind to the need for more education to keep kids safe. “Girls who are younger and younger are getting pregnant. I’ve seen the boyfriends, the kissing and the drama. I want my daughter to know right from wrong. The more knowledge the better,” Mariana Sanoh, a Brooklyn parent of a 12-year-old, told the New York Daily News.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.