The pavement is slick as I walk up to the doorway of the portable classroom at Lincoln High School. Strange green carpeting covers the ramp, leading to a red door emblazoned with a white “1A.” As I turn the knob and peer in, I see a spritely woman with short hair sitting behind a desk at the back of the room. Light from the two windows behind the desk floods in, and I am immediately struck by the sheer amount of color that is present in such a small space. We introduce ourselves and I slide into one of the plastic-and-metal desks. She relaxes into a nearby chair, her dangly earrings swinging merrily. Behind her, “Sexuality” is written in bold down the side of a poster, accompanied by a photograph that says, “He’s gay, and we’re cool with that.” I certainly have come to the right place.
Sydney York has been a health teacher in the Portland Public School system for six years. Before that, she was a curriculum specialist, training teachers throughout the school system on how to talk about sex. She is cheerful and animated, dressed in a colorful jacket. Her classroom is a reflection of her disposition – I can barely see the white of the walls under the multitude of posters and quotes and colorful messages taped up all around. “Humans do as well as they can,” reads the one over her desk; farther down the wall, a big paper with “How to Tell a Good Book” is posted. I wonder, amid the myriad issues and ideas represented on the walls of her classroom, what she most likes about being a health teacher.
“Health is just so relevant,” she says. “In the academic world, health is not considered all that ‘academic,’ but I think it’s really important.” And what is most difficult about her job? “We’re all over the map,” she says. “Part of my job before was to try to help teachers actually feel comfortable… trying to get them to use the standards.” She gestures to the wall across the room, where the eight health class standards are displayed on a large poster. From these standards comes a list of learning goals for sexual education. They range from describing why abstinence is important to understanding how alcohol and drugs influence sexual decision-making to identifying and comprehending gender roles. In Ms. York’s class, they act as a guide and a touchstone for her and her students, and her hope is that other teachers implement them as well. These standards and goals show a marked change over the last forty years in the approach to sexual education in public schools.
Tensions were high in the meeting room, as more than 200 disgruntled parents met with school officials, teachers, and administration. The year was 1969, and the issue at hand was Portland Public Schools’ new sexual education program. Many parents were unhappy with the recent changes in the system, for a variety of reasons. Some said the curriculum was more “sexually stimulating” than it was educational (Guernsey). Others were angry about the ideas of evolution that were shown in some of the informational videos. One of these videos said, “life is believed to have sprung from non-living matter” (Guernsey), a message that one mother strongly disagreed with, saying, “Schools don’t have a right to teach evolution as a fact” (Guernsey). But the main complaint from the parents was that they did not think schools should be teaching sexual education; rather, it was a topic best taught at home, or by pastors. One parent even said, “some of the teachers in sex education programs are also authors of stories in smut magazines” (Guernsey). Despite these complaints, the majority of parents supported sexual education in schools, and the new program had in fact been brought about by a combined effort of parents, ministers, teachers, and sex educators (Guernsey).
Although the idea of sex education was present in Oregon (and around the country) in the sixties and seventies, according to “Sexuality Education: Theory and Practice” “it has only been in the past 20 years or so that programs have become common” (Brues & Greenberg, 35). But these programs have not developed without controversy, both locally and nationally. In 1981, the Adolescent Family Life Act passed in the U.S. Congress, suggesting a sex education curriculum that would "promote self-discipline and other prudent approaches” (Kelly). The late eighties and early nineties marked a change in the landscape of human sexuality education due to the rise of AIDS (Kelly). Sexual education became more “comprehensive,” with a greater emphasis on safe sex and condom use (Kelly).
A direct example of this change can be seen in Oregon. In 1988, all Portland schools were required to provide education about AIDS (Ostergren). This change had a large impact on Oregon’s sexual education system, especially in the neighboring Beaverton school district. A number of meetings were held there, with one of the main issues being whether it is possible to simultaneously teach abstinence and safe sexual practices. In correlation with these concerns, there was also some worry about the moral message of teaching about safe sexual practices (Manzano). One 19-year-old girl, in favor of more comprehensive sexual education, said the problem was with “parents who are so concerned about their children's minds they don't care about their life” (Gardner).
These issues continued to spark controversy into the nineties. The Beaverton school district still had one of the most conservative sex education programs in the state, and one of the most contentious (Franzen). In 1995, a large survey of Beaverton residents showed that 62 percent of adults supported providing information about birth control in schools, and 85 percent said that schools should have a sexual education program (Franzen). However, teachers and administrators still were wary of supporting comprehensive sexual education because of the presence of small but vocal minorities (Franzen). At this time, Oregon law did not mandate comprehensive sex education. The law, passed in 1993, said that sex education should be based around abstinence, although “not to the exclusion of other material and instruction on contraceptive and disease reduction measures” (Franzen).
The landscape of sex education has continued to evolve. In 2009, Oregon legislature passed House Bill 2509, stating that “lessons must be ‘medically accurate’ and include more information about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases and the ‘most effective way to prevent pregnancy’ and transmission of diseases” (Graves). In addition to state-level legislation, more and more schools have independently created their own comprehensive sex education curriculum. One aspect of this change has been that Planned Parenthood often comes into schools to teach students about human sexuality. These school visits have caused some problems, particularly in Benson High School in Northeast Portland. One teacher, Bill Diss, had strong objections to the comprehensive sexual health program that Planned Parenthood was promoting. He says in his blog that he “felt that presence of evil in the classroom” (Diss). He protested against and harassed the Planned Parenthood employees who came to talk (Ertelt). Many anti-abortion websites picked up the story and encouraged readers to write letters to the Portland School Board complaining about Planned Parenthood’s presence in schools (Ertelt).
At the same time, there has been a general increase in public support for comprehensive sex education. When I asked Brad Victor, the sexuality program specialist for Portland Public Schools, how he thought the sex education system in Oregon had changed in recent years, he said, “I think it’s a lot better now. We now have much stronger policy and law. More schools know that they have community support” (Victor). He said that the early 2000s were challenging because “during the eight years Bush was in office… he sponsored abstinence-only education, but Oregon law mandates comprehensive sexuality education, so we had to work against that” (Victor). But Mr. Victor said that change has been particularly evident in the past few years, and that sex educators now have more ability to take unorthodox or more comprehensive approaches. “[The Bush era] was a struggle. But, of course, these past four years have been better” (Victor).
Sex education in Oregon has continued to improve, becoming more comprehensive. But many issues still remain. When I asked Mr. Victor what he saw as the main problem facing sexual education today, he replied, “We sometimes get some pushback from teachers, because of perceived community backlash. I want to emphasize that word, perceived. The teachers or administration think the parents will be against sexual education, but at every parent night, it’s always clear that the parents want to support their kids learning about human sexuality, they just don’t know how.” But had he ever had a situation where there was actual pushback from parents? “There was one community, it was just the typical deal. There were a handful of parents whose agenda was to eliminate sex education in school. Some reporter didn’t do his research and published the story in the paper, and of course all the other parents were shocked, like ‘they’re teaching our kids what?’ It’s hard to work against that.” And now, he says, that community has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the state. “Adult actions have consequences in the youth population” (Victor).
Another issue in the current development of sexual education is the glaring lack of consistency in teaching styles and material taught. In her past job as a curriculum specialist, Ms. York worked on passing an “adopted curriculum,” a uniform set of standards and teaching practices for all schools. But the district no longer had funding for this job, which York sees as a real loss. “Now, there’s no way of knowing that there is consistency.” This lack of uniformity, she says, is one of the greatest challenges that sexuality education faces today. Teachers do not receive much formal training (“we haven’t had professional development for four years” (York)) and are thus left mostly to their own devices to figure out what they want to teach. There are laws and guidelines in place, but they are unclear and are often interpreted differently by different teachers. As reporter Sarah Mirk says in her article “Sex By the Book”, “While current Oregon education law says that abstinence cannot be taught ‘to the exclusion’ of information about contraception, people on the ground say that the low priority teachers give sex education makes it hit and miss” (Mirk).
One response to this problem is the “Youth Sexual Health Plan,” a document put together by the Oregon Department of Human Services, meant to be “a guide for planning programs, advocating for policy, procuring funding and educating stakeholders to support the sexual health of Oregon’s youth” (ODHS). The creators of the document were concerned about Oregon’s teen pregnancy, AIDS, and sexual violence rates and sought to “address youth sexual health in a holistic manner” (ODHS). A key piece of the plan is that it is not centered solely on abstinence; rather, it treats “sexuality as a normal part of healthy development” (McCurdy). It also takes a big-picture view of sex and sexuality, not solely focusing on certain aspects like STD prevention. As an the article in Prevent Connect discussing the plan says, “it really looks at sexual health as something other than just disease intervention, just preventing pregnancy or just preventing STDs” (Maier).
Through all my research and interviews, I was left wondering about students’ reaction to comprehensive sexual education programs. Mr. Victor says that kids seem genuinely interested in issues relating to sexuality. “Younger grade levels, of course… it’s kind of a… they giggle, which is fine. It’s a very fun topic to talk about.” Ms. York agrees. In her classroom, she has an anonymous question jar where students can ask about issues relating to health and sexuality. “I really don’t get that many jokes,” she says. “Kids still have really important questions.” Both Mr. Victor and Ms. York also place a high value on kids’ safety and adults’ responsibility when it comes to sex. “I think youth really want the information and they’d rather get it from informed adults who want to answer their questions, rather than off the Internet or something,” Mr. Victor said. “If we as adults don’t provide them with good information and skills, how can we expect them to make good choices? I wouldn’t just toss my son keys and a driver’s manual and say ‘have at it.’ Of course he’s going to make mistakes, get speeding tickets, get in small accidents, but it will be a lot less if I am involved with him in the process.” Ms. York echoed these sentiments, saying, “We teach abstinence as the only 100 percent way to prevent pregnancy and STDs, but, as a public school system, we’re not going to pretend that kids aren’t sexually active, we just want them to be as safe as possible.”
As Ms. York shows me different books on sexuality, kids start to file in. “I need a glue stick!” one girl calls. Ms. York finds me a seat in the back where I can sit and take in the class.
Today, they are learning about stress. I look around the room – a whiteboard stretches across one wall, next to a beige filing cabinet and large TV. Along the adjacent wall, empty desks are lined up, ending where I am sitting and frantically trying to take in the details. Next to me, a giant collage of student posters heralds the different aspects of healthy living. “Love your body,” says a poster with cut-outs of models. All over the room, statistics jump out. On a wall near the door, a plastic-coated poster has “Health Class Norms” printed at the top. The actions listed below range from “respect and appreciate other’s differences” to “have fun.” On another wall, the posters are more focused on drinking and drugs. “Do you think for yourself?” one reads.
The classroom and its inclusive, eclectic feel represent the development of sexual education over the past 40 years. The posters and magazines and photos show the evolution of sex ed and how it has changed to reflect the community’s perception of what teenagers need to know to approach sex safely. Each wall is colorful, full of interesting facts and student opinions, and very in touch with the emotional side of health, much like Ms. York and the curriculum she espouses. The room is not completely uniform and occasionally conflicting messages show through, but it still presents a comprehensive overview of sexuality. All the issues that used to seem so controversial now b blend in with the messages about good hygiene and self-esteem, just one more aspect of teaching kids to be happy, healthy, and safe.
Bruess, Clint, and Jarrold Greenberg. “Sexuality Education: Theory and Practice.” 5th ed. Boston: Jones & Bartlett, 2008. 35. eBook.
Diss, Bill. "Benson High School Teacher Faces Down Planned Parenthood." Bill's Waste of Air. BlogSpot, 01 2012. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Ertelt, Steven. "Teacher Denies Obamacare-Funded Planned Parenthood Sex-Ed Talk." Life News. May 24 2012. Web. 12 Nov 2012.
Franzen, Robin. "It's Time For That Touchy Talk Again, Mom and Dad." Oregonian. 29 1995: Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Gardner, Fran. "Classes on AIDS Debated." Oregonian. 05 1988: n. page. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Graves, Bill. "Oregon Senate Passes Sex-Education Bill." Oregonian. 19 2009. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Guernsey, John. "Parents Blast School Sex Education." Oregonian. 14 1969: n. page. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Kelly, Katy. "Just Don't Do It!." U.S. News & World Report. 09 2005: n. page. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Maier, Ashley. "Oregon’s Youth Sexual Health Plan Receives National Attention for Expanding the Lens on Sexual Health." Prevent Connect. Calcasa, 24 2012. Web. 12 Nov 2012.
Manzano, Phil. "State Retrieves Condoms From AIDS Awareness Group." Oregonian. 11 1989: n. page. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
McCurdy, Christen. "Oregon Youth Sexual Health Plan Stresses Community Infrastructure." Lund Report. 07 2012: n. page. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Mirk, Sarah. "Sex by the Book." Portland Mercury. 14 2009: n. page. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Oregon Department of Health Services. Oregon. Child and Families Division. Oregon Youth Sexual Health Plan. Salem, 2010. Web.
Ostergren, Jack. "Beaverton Board Adopts Sex-Education Curriculum." Oregonian. 24 1988: n. page. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Ostergren, Jack. "Beaverton Panel Backs ‘Conservative’ Sex Education." Oregonian. 06 1988: n. page. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Victor, Brad. Personal interview. 22 Oct. 2012.
York, Sydney. Personal interview. 1 Nov. 2012.