By Aimee Huber, executive director of First Choice Women’s Resource Center and Gina Shaw
As the parent of a Hillside student who will be attending Glenfield in the fall, I was shocked and appalled to learn that a presentation on “Healthy Bodies and Puberty” had been slated for Glenfield students, to be given by Ms. Pamela Wormack of First Choice Women’s Center. The presentation was ultimately cancelled, but the lack of judgement that led to its even being scheduled in the first place is deeply concerning. And the pressure continues: as the Local has reported, First Choice still made a presentation at the last Board of Education meeting trying to convince the community to allow them in our schools.
Even a cursory examination of the public information regarding this center reveals that it is a religiously based organization focused on an “abstinence-only” message, along with an anti-abortion agenda. Religiously based organizations have no place delivering any sort of curricula in our public schools, particularly not any type of sex education.
Moreover, multiple systematic reviews of abstinence-based sex education programs have repeatedly found that these programs are ineffective at best and damaging at worst. They do not reduce unwanted pregnancies or the spread of sexually transmitted infections; indeed, research has found a direct correlation between how much a sex education program focuses on abstinence, and rates of teen pregnancy. In other words, the more you push abstinence, the more pregnant teenagers you wind up with.
This deeply troubling situation highlights a deeper problem: the lack of consistent standards for comprehensive sex education in Montclair schools. From talking to other parents at a number of Montclair elementary and middle schools, I have learned that the quality and amount of sex education received by any given student depends a lot on which school they are in and which teachers they happen to have.
For example, the presentation that was originally scheduled for Glenfield sixth-graders was entitled “Healthy Bodies and Puberty.” Even had that been a presentation from a qualified health educator, it would have been inappropriate — because sixth grade is far too late for such a presentation. Many children are already in the middle of puberty by the time they enter sixth grade. To prepare them for the physical and emotional changes they will be going through in puberty, that kind of discussion needs to be happening by fourth grade.
In 2012, a group of national experts — including the American School Health Association, the National Education Association Health Information Network, and the American Health Education Association — published National Sexuality Education Standards for K-12, with the stated goal of providing “clear, consistent and straightforward guidance on the essential minimum, core content for sexuality education that is developmentally and age-appropriate for students in grades K–12.” The standards, available online, provide an excellent framework for creating a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum that meets young people’s needs at all ages. Montclair would do well to take advantage of this model.
Comprehensive sexuality education isn’t just about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, although it has clearly been shown to do that very effectively. Comprehensive sexuality education can also improve children’s physical and emotional health, and help them navigate the complex challenges they face on their journey through adolescence to young adulthood. It is a vital tool against relationship violence, bullying and harassment, and marginalization of LGBTQ youth. Our children deserve the best that we can offer them, and right now, Montclair is not offering the best when it comes to sex education. I urge the Board of Education to establish a working group on districtwide standards and curricula for sex education, one that includes educators, qualified health professionals, and parents.
Montclair resident Gina Shaw is a health writer and researcher whose area of expertise includes family planning.