OPINION: THHS moved sex ed to senior year, leaving its students at risk

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In my three years in Townsend Harris, I’ve only had one sex education lesson. The lesson occurred just before my sophomore health class was abruptly canceled and shifted to a physical education course. This was done to correct a programming oversight that would leave THHS students without the required Phys Ed credits to graduate. Since then, the THHS administration has decided to push health and sex ed to senior year. This was a mistake and the decision should be reconsidered. 

In the one lesson I had, students learned how to apply a condom; this is important, but, sexual experiences encompass far more than just contraceptives. At present, the only students that took sexual education lessons with some depth at THHS are the current seniors, which means that 75% of the student body has never received adequate or any sexual education. This is a major problem. A study conducted by the CDC reports that over half of teens have sex by age 18. Thus, high school students need to be taught proper behaviors right away when partaking in such intimate moments so that both parties feel safe and respected—ideally during freshman year. Sex ed should aim to teach students about safety and respect in a way so that students are less prone to make irreversible decisions that may affect them or their partner at a young age. 

In a previous news article about the physical education changes of last year, Assistant Principal Ellen Fee said, “We [the administration] are still thinking that it [health class] probably belongs most in senior year.” In a later article, The Classic reported that “when students take health in their senior year, the course will focus on facilitating their transition to college.” In the same article, Principal Brian Condon explained the decision and said, “There’s a lot of issues around mental health, social skills, [etc.] that you may encounter in college.” This decision suggests that a lot of aspects of health are not going to be essential for students until college. This can be very damaging, as the sexual safety of students is crucial earlier on in life. 

Consent, for instance, is an essential topic and is much more complex than just “yes” or “no.” Someone coerced into saying yes is not consent. Someone staying quiet because of fear is not consent. Someone asking their partner to stop in the middle of an activity and their partner continuing is not consent. However, many teens may not be aware of that because of a lack of sexual education classes. According to experts, “education for young people is one of the most important ways to diminish the incidence of sexual assault.” In THHS, there’s a belief that all students are well-informed, upstanding members of society simply because they are part of the THHS community (or worse, that THHS students are all more “innocent” and don’t need to worry about these topics at their age). These are very dangerous assumptions to make, as it leaves students vulnerable to making ignorant and traumatizing decisions at a young age. 

Additionally, there should be inclusive education available for members of the LGBTQ+ community before senior year. Many members of this community struggle with being accepted by their own family, friends, and people around them, making them less likely to receive necessary information from people in their life. According to Planned Parenthood, they are more likely to have sex earlier, more likely to face dating violence, and more likely to contract STIs. It is imperative students are taught this information at the age that they need it most.

I spoke to students in the school who did have sex education classes before the program changes went into effect. When asked about his sexual education experience at Townsend Harris, senior Xu Dong said, “I received half a school year’s worth of sexual education during my sophomore year at Townsend Harris. I don’t believe anything was left out, as Ms. Assante didn’t shy away from any subjects. She made sure that we understand the consequences of our actions.” While this is wonderful to hear, the younger grades haven’t had this experience yet. Moreover, while I believe health teachers try to teach as much as they can in the time that they are given, half a year may simply not provide enough time to thoroughly teach the intricate aspects of sexual education and health. Senior Christine Xu shared a similar sentiment and said that her “teacher was very thorough in showing us all the resources we have to protect ourselves with. The only downside is that it’s easy to lose track of all the information because we have so much to take in within just one semester.” Sexual education and health may be one of the most important topics that students carry with them even after high school, so it shouldn’t be rushed. 

Our high school needs to teach health earlier and take a serious look into the nuances of health that will teach students detailed lessons on the multiple responsibilities that come with being sexually active. These lessons will allow students to feel safer and be respectful with each other, no matter the circumstances, while performing a very intimate and sensitive act. This is the type of important information that students really need in their day-to-day life and the type of information that top high schools such as THHS should offer—long before senior year. A high school in which students are spending the majority of their time learning how to calculate the limit of twenty different equations while not knowing how to engage in safe and respectful sexual relations is a school that is failing its students.