Let’s Talk About Sex: Windsor High School’s Lack of Health and Sexual Education

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Windsor Senior Allen Heideman looks at a package of condoms in confusion. [Photo: Jacob Garnjost]
Let’s Talk About Sex: Windsor High School’s Lack of Health and Sexual Education

By Jacob Garnjost

In my four years at Windsor High school I’ve worried about the fact that I’ve never come in contact with something in class: sex. And I don’t say this because I’m lonely. I say this because I’ve never had a sexual education course. Or a health class. Or a kind of awkward gym class where we talk about condoms and STDs. I noticed this issue in Women’s Literature, following a presentation from Wise on preventing sexual violence, and learning a little more about sex ed in our country from Jon Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight. Sex ed in the United States is not great, but Vermont is generally considered to be one of the better states as far as teaching sex ed. My experience is also the experience of many Windsor High School students. I noticed this problem and I did the only thing I felt I was qualified to do. Research.

First I found a law. Vermont § 131. of Title 16 is in regard to “comprehensive health education,” which must be taught in both elementary and high school. This term includes a lot, such as “(1) Body structure and function, including the physical, psychosocial and psychological basis of human development, sexuality, and reproduction,” but most importantly for this piece, “(4) Disease, such as HIV infection, other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as other communicable diseases, and the prevention of disease,” and “(8) Human growth and development, including understanding the physical, emotional, and social elements of individual development and interpersonal relationships, including instruction in parenting methods and styles. This shall include information regarding the possible outcomes of premature sexual activity, contraceptives, adolescent pregnancy, childbirth, adoption, and abortion.” Now I know that’s a lot of technical jargon about basic sex ed, but bear with me. The majority of these parts of the term “comprehensive health education” were implemented between 2005 and 2012. At the time of their implementation we were following these standards.

Following the 2012-13 school year, a large round of budget cuts rocked Windsor High School. A number of teachers were cut, including the half position of a health teacher. This teacher taught Healthy and Independent Living, a class which was a graduation requirement for seniors. Healthy covered a lot of “life skills,” including balancing a checkbook or how to buy insurance. Additionally, it covered a lot of those content from § 131, such as HIV & AIDs, contraceptives, and teen pregnancy. In the three years following the elimination of this course, this curriculum has been absent from Windsor.

The budget cut I mentioned earlier essentially eliminated all health education from the school. Some aspects of health education, such as nutrition, were transitioned into other classes like Physical Education or Biology. When speaking with Windsor School’s Superintendent Dr. David Baker, he explained that they knew they had to move health education elsewhere. “We said look, we’re going to have to ensure somehow that those pieces of those units and those requirements that are outlined in the law, get taught through Physical Education or Science, Biology. The assumption is that’s what’s happening. Because we don’t have a prescribed written science curriculum or a PE curriculum, and we’re working on that. So then we’ll be able to point to the document and say that’s where we’re teaching it, here is the standard. We don’t have that right now,” said Baker.

Dr. Baker raises a good point: perhaps we’re in transition. Life at Windsor has been a little rocky of late with teacher and administrator turnover, but he also highlights a common theme I saw amongst the different people with whom I spoke. Faculty, through no fault of their own, describe feeling that “someone is doing it, I don’t know where, but I’m sure it’s being covered.” The school’s nurse, Karen Townsend, told me that she thought our school needed to rethink our approach to health education. She thinks it’s very important for our school to do more to teach about sex ed “because it’s lacking and kids are not always informed and they may have parents who don’t talk to them about sex ed. So they find the information that’s available to them, and sometimes it’s not correct.” When I asked her where she thought our school was covering sex ed she told me it was her understanding that it was covered in Physical Education. Unfortunately, it’s not covered there. And It’s not covered anywhere.

In my initial conversation with Principal Tiffany Cassano, she too was unclear with where sex ed was being covered in our school. She pointed me in the direction of our school’s recent use of Wise, a group that provides crisis support, advocacy, and prevention in cases of domestic violence, sexual abuse and stalking. Recently Wise came into the Biology classes for a week to teach students about sexual violence and things like consent. The service that Wise provides Windsor is essential and actually a very important part of the definition of “Comprehensive Health Education.” But as Wise representative Kate Rohdenbury told me, what they’re doing is only half of the process. “Healthy sexuality education is a major factor in preventing sexual violence and promoting health and awareness.” said Rohdenbury. Even Cassano seemed to question whether we were doing enough in terms of sex education. “Is it perfect? It’s not perfect. We’re trying to fill in the gaps.”

Few people at Windsor would be surprised to hear that our approach to sex education is “not perfect.” In fact, most people would call that an understatement. The majority of both students and teachers whom I told I was writing an article on our school’s sex ed said something along the lines of “What sex ed?” One of these people was school guidance councilor Tim Hebert. He’s been at Windsor longer than any other member of the faculty that I spoke to, and he thinks Windsor is really lucky that we haven’t had a lot of pregnancies amongst students. He thinks we need sex ed for the plain fact that “abstinence is not realistic for many teenagers,” and he’d be right. The most recently available data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), shows that 49% of Windsor students reported that they had had sexual intercourse, with 39% reporting they had had sex within the last 3 months.

It’s not to say that our school doesn’t do anything in terms sexual education, just not at the high school level. Elementary Science & Health teacher Colleen Deschamp explained to me that it’s a part of the 6th grade curriculum to discuss “the structure and function of the reproductive system,” but she doesn’t discuss STDs, HIV & AIDs, or contraception. And this makes sense because she’s teaching eleven and twelve year olds. Unfortunately this is the closest thing our school has to a health or sex ed course and it’s being taught to kids who haven’t even reached puberty yet.

I decided to follow up with Ms. Cassano in regards to my previous interview with her. I wanted to clarify just exactly her understanding of our school’s adherence with the state.

I explained to her that we were missing large chunks out of this definition, like discussions of contraceptives, STDs, and HIV & AIDs, not to mention other things like individual development and interpersonal relationships. She responded saying “We should actually be covering those. Have we been? No, I’ll be honest we absolutely have not. It’s a direction we want to move in, we just aren’t there right now.” And when I asked her if, aside from the law, she thought this was something we should be paying more attention to, she said “In the last two years there hasn’t been a lot of attention placed on it, I would admit that.” She thinks that prior to the cuts there was, and “that’s a direction we have to think about moving in again.”

At some point during the past couple weeks while I’ve been working on this piece, a small discussion was raised about considering using Planned Parenthood or the Agency of Education to potentially fill in some of these “gaps.” This “consideration” was the result of a little digging, and hopefully the start of the bigger discussion that I intend to create in presenting all of this information to our school and our community.

It’s very easy to point fingers in this situation and say that someone else should be responsible. And it’s unfair to pass blame on a principal who is technically here for the interim and has only inherited the current system. In fact, I’d say that a lot of different parties share responsibility for how we got here, from the Vermont Education Department down to students at this school, because it should be all of our responsibilities to make sure students are getting an equal and fair education. The fact of the matter is that no one is proud or satisfied with the level of health and sexual education that Windsor is providing. Hopefully, this can be changed.

As for students who have questions about health and sexuality, talk to your guidance counselor or the school nurse because I, along with all of the graduates of all classes since 2013, can attest that no course is going to teach you about condoms and birth control.

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One thought on “Let’s Talk About Sex: Windsor High School’s Lack of Health and Sexual Education

  1. Well done Jacob. You have shown the way to create change. It comes through sensible gathering of information and research and the positing of important unaddressed questions. Hats off to you. I hope your work will be an impetus for change in Windsor for the betterment of your peers.

    Like

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