Lawmakers move to mandate K-12 sex education

Students at Gullet Elementary in North Austin in 2019 learn about the functions of a family as part of the Austin school district’s human sexuality and responsibility curriculum.

Democrats are eyeing passage a measure before the end of session, they said Thursday, to require comprehensive sex education for New York students in all grade levels and potentially change a culture of sexual harassment and violence.

The bill would amend state Education Law mandating each charter and public school provide age-appropriate, science-based sex education for Kindergarten through 12th grade to prevent relationship abuse, violence and sexual harassment.

The state Education Department and Health Department commissioners would work together to develop the K-12 comprehensive sex education curriculum to teach every student about appropriate versus inappropriate conduct and how to protect themselves.

“This bill would give young people the tools and the language and the comfort level of addressing these topics,” bill sponsor Sen. Samra Brouk, D-Rochester, said Thursday. “This is medically backed and age-appropriate.”

Sexual harassment and misconduct have dominated news headlines and conversations over the last several months, after eight women, including current and former aides, have accused Gov. Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment or assault.

The measure will pass this session, Brouk said, and is critical to work with educators and organizations to teach youth about consent and personal boundaries to address an alarming increase in relationship violence, sexual harassment and assault.

“We have to build a more empathetic and more respectful and safer community with young people who understand things like consent and boundaries,” Brouk said Thursday. “We are trying to build a community and society where we don’t have a governor with multiple accusations of sexual harassment. We don’t want there to be a question as to whether or not someone’s boundaries have been violated and we want to make sure any young person who may be a future nurse, or senator or governor that they, from a young age, understand boundaries, they understand healthy relationships and they understand that it is OK to communicate ‘No.’”

Comprehensive sexual education could work as long-term prevention for sexual assault and sexual violence in the community.

The education, the senator said, would help New York students understand when their boundaries were violated in the workplace, but also for the person pursuing the unwanted physical advances to understand the importance of seeking consent.

“It’s critical the person in the other position understands just how important it is to seek consent to touch anybody’s body and that they are not entitled to do that to anyone else,” Brouk said. “I really see this as, there’s a way to solve the problem.”

Subject matter for Kindergarteners through second-graders include learning about family structures, friendships, healthy relationships, respecting each other’s physical boundaries and healthy ways to express emotion.

Sex education at the middle and high school levels would also review gender and sexuality as well as anatomy and contraceptives.

Teresa Casullo, community educator with Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, noted common innocent questions young children might ask, such as “Why does my friend stand up to go to the bathroom?”

“They [children] have less fear when they have strong body image and strong friendships,” Casullo said during a virtual rally Thursday to push for statewide comprehensive sex education before legislative session ends in June.

“Children should understand their body is their own and no one should be asking to touch their genitals except for their parents or health care provider,” she said.

Last week, a Rochester-area elementary school principal was criminally charged with sexually abusing nine male students between the ages of 8 and 12 over the last four years.

“Now it is understood [comprehensive sex education] may have led to the folks to be able to speak up and to have the language and understanding that it was wrong,” Brouk said, adding the knowledge will help students speak up about sexual abuse from a young age.

If passed, the sex education curriculum could be woven in different subjects throughout the school day and would not be limited to instruction in a separate health class.

Local districts will be permitted to create their own curriculum in collaboration with the school board and parents in the community, but must abide by the state guidelines.

“We’re literally talking about being able to say ‘I’m mad that Sally took this toy out of my hand,’” Brouk said. “That’s what we’re talking about for a 5-year-old — healthy ways to express those feelings so they don’t turn into rage or physical harm on anyone or bullying.”

Lori, a rape crisis advocate with the Albany County Crime Victim and Sexual Violence Center, said sexual assault stems from years of internalized problematic beliefs about respect, relationships and gender.

“These beliefs take place in childhood and distort our views into the world well into adulthood,” she said. “We want our kids to be the best that they can be. We want them to thrive in their relationships to feel safe. How will they know how to do that unless they teach them?”

Research from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention show comprehensive sex education helps prevent pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and other Sexually Transmitted Infections.

“Importantly, they found that many other programs helped young people delay initiation of sex and they found little evidence that these kind of comprehensive programs increased sexual activity among young people — something that many people fear,” said Dr. John Santalli, a pediatrician and professor of population and family health at Columbia University, citing the CDC study.

Women who receive comprehensive sexual education before college are half as likely to be raped in college, advocates said Thursday. The education will also change young people’s perspectives on the LGBTQ community and help them identify or understand their sexual orientation.

“We believe providing youth with skills that are based on mutual respect and affection will prevent violence,” said attorney Andrew Sta. Ana, director of legal services for Day One, an organization working to end youth dating abuse. “...It will make them better equipped to understand themselves and each other.”

The bill remains in each chamber’s education committees.

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