By Ilana Cohen
Photography by Boo Elliott
Whether within the context of our personal lives, when reading the news, or in analyzing literature, film, and art, Beacon students talk a lot about sex. However, many Beacon students have received little to no sexual education in their high school career. Over the course of the current school year, a few dedicated Beacon faculty members have embraced the challenge of developing a comprehensive and identity-inclusive sex ed platform for the Beacon student body.
Sex (Ed) and the City
With around 3 in 5 high school students having sexual intercourse by their senior year, the imperative for sex ed is clear. Yet both New York State and City have failed to meet this need. Under state law, middle and high school students must receive health instruction by a certified health instructor; however, that instruction does not necessarily have to cover sexual health. While the city’s Department of Education (DOE) has encouraged schools to provide comprehensive sex ed, the agency’s requirements are vague and its resources limited.
In September 2017, the Office of NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer reported that “88 percent of [NYC] schools that teach students in grades 6-12 (844 schools) have no teacher who is licensed by New York City for health education.” Across the city’s middle and high schools, only 3.2% of teachers assigned to teach health are licensed by the city to do so.
Without adequate sex ed programming, NYC students miss a lot more information than just how to have safe sex. In 2012, the New York Civil Liberties Union studied the state’s school districts and found their sex ed programs “inaccurate, incomplete and biased.” In ⅘ of districts studied, students learned about condoms but only ⅓ of districts actually taught their students how to use them. Only 56% of districts studied “offered complete and scientifically accurate information” when teaching about HIV. A sizable minority, 28% of districts studied, did not teach students about sexual assault or rape. While 44% of school districts “taught students about sex and gender role stereotypes,” almost ¼ “used materials that directly reinforced [them].”
Developing Sex Ed at Beacon
Historically, Beacon’s sex ed programming has been sparse. In past years, its coordination was delegated to a single faculty member. Advisors and Big Sibs were responsible for co-teaching about vital issues from safe sex to consent, yet absent the know-how of a sexual health professional and a structured curriculum, this often devolved into narrow discussions of personal experience. Students who had not received adequate sex ed in high school themselves were facilitating sex ed for their younger peers, combining sexual health with the topics of bullying, drugs, and alcohol before moving on completely a few Fridays later.
Elysha Weissglass, the school’s 9th and 10th-grade school counselor, knew something had to change. Now in her second year at Beacon, she has worked to create a more cohesive and collaborative sex ed program. To alleviate the burden of freshmen advisories “building community and talking about heavy things all within one year,” Ms. Weissglass wanted to take sex ed out of advisors’ hands and put it into those of sexual health professionals, as well as extend sex ed programming to older students. Her work began with a simple request. Ms. Weissglass asked her former professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, renowned sex educator and TV personality Dr. Sari Locker, to speak to Beacon students.
“[Sari] came in and I was like, I just need you to give us the nitty-gritty of sex. What is sex?…How can we form relationships that lead into sex? You know, is what I’m thinking about sex normal? And then, STI and pregnancy prevention. Kind of basics,” explains Ms. Weissglass.
With limited resources at her disposal, Ms. Weissglass worked with Ms. Locker to coordinate two sex ed workshops: one was an advisory-based lesson on STI and pregnancy prevention, while the second was a larger Q&A session on sex in all its forms—involving LGBT relationships, women’s issues, and individual readiness.
Locker’s workshops were “inclusive of all sexualities and gender identities, which was nice,” recalls sophomore Aayusha Duwadi. “But with the limited time we had, they felt rushed and vague.”
For Ms. Weissglass, Locker’s workshops were just a beginning. She, along with fellow counselor Maylin Fernandez, requested a sex educator on the Beacon School Parent Association (PA) wish list The request caught the attention of Beacon parent and PA donation team member, Carla Weiss, whose own sex ed experience was a painfully awkward course taught by her high school gym teacher. She wanted her daughter and the larger Beacon student body to receive “reasonable and confident sex education.”
After meetings with Ms. Weissglass, Ms. Fernandez, and Assistant Principal Bill Stroud, Ms. Weiss solicited other parents’ ideas for low to no-cost sex ed workshops through a PA newsletter. She soon heard from Beacon parent William Arboleda, Director of Special Projects at the Ryan/Chelsea-Clinton Community Health Center located right by Beacon at 645 10th Avenue. The center is part of the William F. Ryan Community Health Network, “a family of not-for-profit, federally qualified health centers that deliver world-class medical care to diverse and underserved communities.” After Ms. Weiss connected Mr. Arboleda and his colleagues, to the Beacon guidance team, the organizing began.
Over the course of this coming April and May, sexual health professionals from the Ryan Center will visit Beacon and run three consecutive workshops in individual advisories, all at no cost to the school. The first workshop will cover the types and usage of contraceptives, mentioning the option of abstinence and the Family Planning Benefit Program, a public health insurance program for low-income New Yorkers through which students can access confidential family planning and sexual health services. Next will come a workshop centered around STIs and HIV/AIDS, while the third and final workshop will discuss the sexual risk continuum. These workshops will be discussion-based and interactive, involving related games and Q&A sessions.
“Sex is natural and most of us will have it in our lifetime,” says Sharmistha Mohapatra, Education and Engagement Coordinator at the Ryan/Chelsea-Clinton Community Health Center. Ms. Mohapatra is co-coordinating the Beacon workshop series with her colleague and the Center’s Director of Support Services, Victor Hogue. “It’s best to be armed with knowledge of how to protect ourselves and be intentional with our choices.”
In addition to the Ryan Center’s work, the NYC Healthy Relationships Training Academy within the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence will teach Beacon students about healthy relationships and consent. Ms. Weissglass hopes students will leave these workshops not only with a deeper understanding of sexual health issues but also “knowing there’s a clinic around the corner” and resources available to them.
Students and Healthy Relationships
Alivia Curl, Beacon’s Relationship Abuse Prevention Program (RAPP) Coordinator, is eager to promote healthy relationships among the Beacon student body. Like Ms. Weissglass, she has been working to remedy the school’s lack of sex ed infrastructure through growing initiatives of her own. Ms. Curl came to Beacon after being informed by a Beacon parent that the school lacked a RAPP program. Now, she aims to “teach the difference between healthy relationships and unhealthy relationships through classroom workshops” and support students by offering free, confidential, one-on-one and group therapy sessions.
One of the most formative aspects of Ms. Curl’s role at Beacon is her facilitation of RAPP club. The tight-knit club is based on a seven-week-long paid summer internship program run by RAPP’s parent organization, STEPS to End Family Violence, that trains students to become role models in their communities. According to Ms. Curl, the club primarily promotes healthy teen relationships but is also a space where “people can bring their passions” for social justice issues, from bullying to police brutality and environmentalism.
For Beacon junior and RAPP club member Nora DeRege, RAPP is meant “to create a space where conversations and education about issues like unhealthy relationships and consent are discussed in a really productive and safe way for students.”
The club’s goals align with those of the sex ed programming Ms. Weissglass has sought to introduce at Beacon. Ms. Curl believes the Ryan Center workshops will effectively convey the big ideas of sex—such as consent and partners’ rights in their relationship—provide new tools for conversations about sex, and potentially inspire Beacon students to think about aspects of healthy relationships that they don’t normally consider.
Expanding the Conversation
Ms. Weissglass sees the upcoming workshops by the Ryan Center as one step in the greater development of Beacon’s sex ed programming: “We’re bringing in these people but the conversation can’t stop with [them].” In the future, she hopes to obtain a full sex ed curriculum and adapt it for the school’s use. She also stresses that upperclassmen can play an important role in improving sex ed at Beacon by setting a model for their younger peers. Big Sibs can engage in conversations about healthy relationships and the numerous topics covered by the upcoming workshops with their Little Sibs. Ms. Weissglass also encourages older students to model responsible social media use; she urges students “to be kinder…and to be mindful” of what they post and how they respond to others online, especially in the context of over-sexualization. One day, she would love to start training Big Sibs to be “peer educators around health and wellness.”
Beyond serving as role models for underclassmen, upperclassmen can also benefit from sex ed programming themselves. Ms. Weissglass hopes to use this spring as an opportunity to speak with seniors about sex-related issues. She, along with Ms. Locker, believe that seniors should consider what it means to “reestablish [their] expectations around hooking up and sex” before they leave high school. Ms. Curl agrees that the ‘trickle-up’ effect of providing sex ed to freshmen is not enough; seniors are a crucial part of the conversation.
“Just people being comfortable with talking about sex is really key,” says Zoe Franks, a senior and leader of the Women’s Empowerment club. She hopes to see sex ed lessons that are “centered around normalizing sex instead of making it just something that can result in pregnancy,” where “students [can] ask questions without being put on the spot [or] shamed.”
Creating safe spaces for students to talk about sex is a goal shared by Ms. Weissglass and Ms. Curl. “We don’t always have those spaces in Beacon,” Ms. Weissglass explains. She wants to establish a school culture of addressing not only sexual health but other issues that affect students around the country, such as mental health.
Similarly, Ms. Curl hopes to establish a sense of safety in Beacon classrooms. “You can read about [sexual violence], but are we really talking about it?” she wonders. Expanding upon the work she has done with a few Beacon English teachers, Ms. Curl wants to facilitate regular workshops for English students who are reading about and discussing rape, sexual abuse, and unhealthy relationships within their coursework.
Sex ed should arm students for the adult world of sex, love, and relationships, but many NYC students never truly receive this crucial form of education. Comptroller Scott Stringer has requested that the DOE issue a Chancellor’s regulation on the implementation of comprehensive sex ed, and his fellow NYC public officials should support him in this effort. However, it’s also up to school administrations to make sex ed a priority, as well as students to make their schools a safe space for open conversation about sexual well-being.
Disclaimer: Writer Ilana Cohen is the niece of Beacon parent and PA member Carla Weiss, quoted in the article above.