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A parent attending the last of four community forums on sex education in the Buffalo Public Schools said something valuable on the challenges the school district faces in confronting a burgeoning crisis of sexual activity by the city’s students. Said Alandra Gethers: “We cannot negate the fact or override parents that are [already] actively involved in their children’s lives.”
Message to the district: Proceed carefully, but proceed.
It’s just the right tone. With a recent study showing that Buffalo students are engaging in sexual intercourse at a rate 20 percent higher than the state average, the need is obvious and critical. That is especially true given that about half of all traditional city students in Buffalo report not having learned about HIV/AIDS in school and that a large percentage of sexually active students report not using condoms.
This is not just a family matter anymore, if it ever was. Careless sexual behavior by teens poses a public health crisis for the students as well as a child- and health-care crisis for taxpayers.
Given that many parents don’t talk to their children about sex, and that the failure to do so occurs at a time when youths of all ages are engulfed in a tsunami of sexually charged messages, it is clear that public institutions have to act. Schools are the obvious choices to take the lead in that urgent task.
Yet, it is important for schools to consult and, as much as possible, coordinate with parents who do discuss sexuality with their children and who want to retain control over aspects of that education.
It is incontestable, given the statistics of sexual activity among Buffalo students, that schools have to instruct students on the consequences of casual, unprotected sex. That includes not only the great risk of unwanted pregnancy, but of the emotional, financial and life toll that premature intimacy can precipitate.
But kids need other information, too, and given our sex-soaked culture, that has to include how not to get pregnant and how not to acquire a sexually transmitted disease. Abstinence can be an important part of that, but it’s not enough. Students also need to learn about contraception.
There’s a difference between instruction and endorsement, and that is where schools need to take Gethers’ counsel to heart. Schools need to deliver facts to students, but parents need to retain control over the message: Is it right? Is it wise? What do we believe as parents?
This shouldn’t be that difficult. Some parents, no doubt, will complain that the word sex is even mentioned by teachers, but their heads are in the sand. The world has changed and, in one way or another, kids are being encouraged every day to experiment with sex. Against that onslaught, they at least need some facts, presented in a way that does not usurp the teaching role of parents.
Facts don’t hurt. Ignorance does. A recent study confirmed what should have been common sense: When girls get vaccinations that protect against cervical cancer, they are not suddenly transformed into wanton sex addicts. They remain who they were before. It is up to parents and schools to help shape who these students are.