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Beyond the birds and bees: Where’s the sex ed in Pennsylvania schools?

Margarita Cambest
  • Pennsylvania law requires students get basic information on HIV and other communicable diseases, but makes no mention of other sexual health education

When it comes to the birds and the bees, today’s teenagers often turn to two common sources for their information: their peers and the internet.

In Pennsylvania, state law does require that students receive basic information on HIV and other communicable diseases, but it makes no mention of sexual health education beyond that. Repeated efforts by legislators to add sexual health education to state standards keep failing, but if the desire is there, why don’t students learn more about sexual health in school, and should they?

Director of Education Services Jamie Reisinger is shown in the classroom where Transformation Information is taught at Byrnes Health Education Services in York City, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Over the last 20 years, the federal government has given about $2 million to abstinence-only sexual health education efforts, despite minimal evidence that programs that leave out safe sex and birth control are effective.

While teen pregnancy is at an all-time low, rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea, two sexually transmitted infections more prevalent in the 15-to-24 demographic, are rising.

Planned Parenthood Keystone president Melissa Reed said the women's health organization supported a bill that would have required comprehensive sexual health education be taught in all of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts, but the Senate bill failed in committee. A previous version also stalled after passing the state House in 2010.

“We’re hoping young folks have safe sex or remain abstinent until they’re in a mature relationship, but that’s not always the case, so it’s important that we give young people that comprehensive, medically accurate information,” Reed said.

STDs increase for second year

Behavior: Statistics back that up. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2015 youth behavioral risk survey, more than 41 percent of high schoolers nationwide had sexual intercourse before being surveyed, with more than a quarter of Pennsylvania high school students reporting they had sexual intercourse in the three months before being surveyed. Thirty-six percent of Pennsylvania students reported they had never had sexual intercourse.

Abstinence is the only 100 percent effective solution to teen pregnancy or the transmission of STIs, but teaching it doesn’t help the students already participating in these behaviors, Reed explained.

“A lot of that information ... people do not get in their public schools or from their parents,” Reed said. “We want to make sure we’re talking to them about not only abstinence but also about STI prevention, birth control and safe sex.”

Byrnes Center: In York, the Susan Brynes Health Education Center offers a number of classes that help fill the gap between what students learn from their peers and what might make parents uncomfortable to talk about, said Jaime Reisinger, director of education services. Though none of what the center provides is specifically called sexual education, human growth and development workshops range from discussions on puberty to reproduction. Programming for grades 9 to 12 loosely discusses STIs.

“A lot of the school districts like using the Byrnes Center because of the nature of the subject,” Reisinger said. “We do it in an age-appropriate way.”

Byrnes staff visited 14 public and private schools in York County to teach their Grow and Know puberty program to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders last year. Additionally, they gave the puberty program at the center 28 times and to other schools in south-central Pennsylvania 82 times.

Director of Education Services Jamie Reisinger talks about visual aids used when teaching about hygiene as part of the Transformation Information session offfered in the classroom at Byrnes Health Education Services in York City, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

“Puberty is not sex ed,” Reisinger explained. “It’s the natural changes their bodies will go through over the next few years. We try to prepare them for those changes and tell them what to expect and when to expect it so (that) when they are going though these changes, they know what’s happening.”

The center offers in-house programming for parents and their middle school children as well as teen talks geared to students. The talks include discussions on puberty but also touch on healthy relationships, good decision making, relationship communication and sexual assault without promoting sexual activity.

At the high school level, Life Begins focuses on the reproductive system, fertilization and fetal development, and a small portion of the course is dedicated to STIs. Last year, eight high schools received the program at the center or at their schools.

York City School District spokeswoman Erin James said the district relies on Byrnes to give puberty talks to its fifth-graders, but high school students learn about more extensive sexual health topics in their health classes.

At William Penn High School, students are required to take a health class to graduate. The class covers topics including sexuality, healthy relationships, nutrition, fitness, substance abuse and disease prevention. 

“This is not a traditional 'sex ed' class, as the curriculum covers much more than sexuality,” James said.

Calls to clarify York Suburban, Central York and West York school district policies were not immediately returned.