Why sex education in NJ is still leaving students unsatisfied
Are your teens getting all the information they need from their high school sex education classes?
New Jersey has developed a reputation a national leader in sex education for more than three decades. In fact, we’re the first state in the country to pass a mandate for sex education classes.
According to David Saenz, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education, New Jersey’s student learning standards include the study of comprehensive health and physical education, and as part of that, students are given a far-ranging course on human relationships and sexuality.
“The idea is to make sure all students in high school will acquire knowledge about the physical, emotional and social aspects of human relationships and sexuality, and apply these concepts to support a healthy, active lifestyle,” he said.
But some experts believe more needs to be done.
Nicole Cushman, executive director of Answer, a program based at Rutgers University within the Center for Applied Psychology that is dedicated to promoting access to comprehensive sex education, said New Jersey's comprehensive standards don't always translate to effective teaching.
“We hear stories about the information students do and do not receive in school, and frankly, they’re not satisfied with the education they’re receiving,” she said.
She continued: “Young people really want and need a safe place in the classroom to talk about relationships, to talk about your feelings related to their emerging sexuality, and they’re not getting that need met. Very often they tell us the information they get is very clinical in nature and it doesn’t address the context of their lives.”
So what are the kids dissatisfied with?
“For example, many teachers don’t feel comfortable addressing issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity,” she said.
“The reality is that young people today are coming to terms with their sexual identity at younger and younger ages, and they’re more accepting than previous generations of LGBTQ individuals. They want sex education that is relevant and inclusive for all young people," Cushman said.
She stressed this is something that’s important regardless of the sexual orientation of an individual student.
“Sex education should be a place where they can learn to understand, respect and accept their peers, and young people can see and feel that their teachers aren’t always comfortable addressing the issues that are relevant to them," Cushman said.
At the same time, Cushman said, this doesn’t mean sex education needs to be a space for young people to divulge personal information.
“When it’s facilitated well, sex education can create an environment for discussing issues but not necessarily personal experiences,” she said.
Cushman added one big challenge of having sex education that stresses abstinence “is that whether it’s intended or not, subtle remarks that a teacher might make can actually feel very judgmental.”
She said sex education is challenging and requires a unique skill set from educators, because the topic is different from teaching science or math or history.
“We haven’t done a good job of equipping teachers with the knowledge, skills and the comfort they need to facilitate these difficult conversations,” she said.
Cushman said Answer is devoted to teacher training.
“We know many teachers don’t receive that type of specialized training when getting their credentials. They get put in a classroom with only a curriculum and a set of standards, and not a lot of guidance on how to actually implement it,” she said.
She said Answer has worked with the New Jersey Department of Education for many years, although recently the DOE has scaled back this involvement
Saenz said the state Board of Education adopts specific standards of what will be taught about sex education, and state law requires schools to stress abstinence as the only completely reliable method of pregnancy prevention .
“Our main goal is to pass the overarching standards to our students. Then it comes down to the school and the district choosing how best to instruct the students in their district about those standards,” he said.
Saenz said individual school districts make curriculum decisions about how to teach sex education, and what lesson plans to use, on a day-to-day basis.
More from New Jersey 101.5: