sex and the city

Church policy could complicate city's new sex ed requirements

Public schools located in former Catholic school buildings will have to find another place to teach newly required sex education.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott surprised principals last night with the news that sex education will be mandatory in middle and high schools starting this year—a decision the New York Civil Liberties Union called “a great step forward for students’ health.”

For schools that operate in space leased from the Archdiocese of New York, the new requirement could induce a scheduling headache. A Department of Education spokeswoman, Barbara Morgan, confirmed that those schools would have to conduct the sex education lessons off-site in accordance with the archdiocese’s longstanding policy prohibiting sex education in space that it owns.

As Catholic schools have lost students in recent years, the archdiocese has closed dozens of schools, including 27 this year. The city has then rented some of those buildings to relieve its own space crunch. Last year, when the city decided to rent the former Saint Michael’s Academy to house the Clinton School for Artists and Writers, it noted that students would have to return to the school’s previous site for sex education.

Fran Davies, education spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said today that church officials were still researching the issue.

Most public schools housed in rented former Catholic school space are elementary schools, which are not affected by the new requirement. But at least a few middle and high schools, like West Brooklyn Community High School and El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Williamsburg, will have to make other plans if they haven’t already.

The city already has solutions for some of those schools, Morgan said. At John Adams High School in Queens, for example, ninth-graders are taught in an annex leased from the archdiocese. Those students would move into the school’s main building for sex education lessons, or wait until 10th grade to take the required health class, Morgan said. Walcott’s announcement said that schools could fulfill the new requirement within the semester-long health classes that are already required in middle and high schools.

But it remains unclear where students in archdiocese-owned buildings without a secondary facility will go for the sex education component of those classes.

The full message that Walcott sent to principals last night is below.

Dear Colleagues,

Last week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg unveiled the City’s Young Men’s Initiative (YMI), a comprehensive, three-year action plan to confront racial and ethnic disparities among young men in New York City.

The plan includes policy reforms and coordination across multiple city agencies, and is one of the most ambitious efforts ever undertaken to improve outcomes for black and Latino young men.

Over the next three years, the City will invest more than $127 million—including $60 million in private philanthropy—in programs and policies that target the areas of greatest disparity and need.

The Department of Education will play a key role in the success of the Young Men’s Initiative, including working on new efforts to close the racial achievement gap and help black and Latino boys reach their full academic potential. The DOE will also have new and increased responsibility for educating our students about sexual activity and the associated health risks.

As you know, New York State currently requires a one-semester, daily health education course in both middle and high school, but does not mandate sex education. While many of our schools have already voluntarily taken steps to include sex education in their curriculum, some have not, leaving us with an uneven system that I believe does not serve our students well.

When I first began working on the Young Men’s Initiative during my time as Deputy Mayor, I saw some very troubling statistics about our students’ levels of sexual activity and their health risks. We have students who are having sex before the age of 13; students who have had multiple sexual partners; and students who aren’t protecting themselves against sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. As a parent and a grandparent—and as the person responsible for ensuring that all of our public school students receive a high-quality education—that is very concerning.

I believe the school system has an important role to play with regard to educating our children about sex and the potential consequences of engaging in risky behavior. That is why, starting in the second semester of the upcoming 2011-2012 school year, we will be requiring both middle schools and high schools to include sex education lessons in their health curriculum.

Specifically, NYC public middle and high school students must receive sex education lessons during one semester in both middle and high school. Schools will have flexibility and support in deciding how to incorporate these lessons into their current health curriculum, as well as discretion as to which grade to offer the lessons. But we are strongly recommending that health instruction take place in 6th or 7th grade in middle school, and in 9th or 10th grade in high school.

We must be committed to ensuring that both middle school and high school students are exposed to this valuable information so they can learn to keep themselves safe before, and when, they decide to have sex.

As with our HIV/AIDS curriculum, we will offer a parental opt-out on specific lessons involving prevention and birth control. In the coming weeks, we will be providing you with information you can share with parents to that end.

As in the past, we are recommending The HealthSmart curriculum for middle schools. For high schools, we recommend adding the Reducing the Risk curriculum. You can find more information on the curriculum at this Web site.

The DOE’s Office of School Wellness Programs (OSWP) will be providing free trainings and curriculum to teachers and administrators starting in the first week of September. In addition, network staff will be available in the coming months to provide direct technical assistance to schools and answer additional questions you may have about programming and certification requirements.

This is a new policy, and it will take time to get ready for its implementation. Rest assured, we will work closely with you in the coming weeks and months to help ensure schools are prepared.

But I strongly believe this policy is overdue for our school system. I have always believed that parents should have the right to opt-out of certain sex education lessons such as conversations on prevention and birth control, as they will in this case. But I also feel we have a responsibility to offer our students access to information that will keep them safe and healthy.

I look forward to working with you and with our parents and teachers and partners in the greater school community to ensure this initiative is a success.


Dennis M. Walcott

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the department's FY2019 budget. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.