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Why Are Schools Afraid To Teach Sexual Health Education?

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You may have heard about the revisions to the Physical Health and Education curriculum in Ontario over which there was -- and still is -- considerable controversy. Ontario teachers had been using a curriculum from 1998 until the revisions came out in 2010. Although they were posted on the provincial website, they never saw the light of day primarily because of pushback from fundamentalist groups.

However, in 2015, after ongoing consultations with teachers, health professionals, parents and other interested parties, the curriculum, which included sexual health and personal safety, was finally ready for implementation.

Or was it?

Guidelines are only as good as the lesson plans that give them life in the classroom. And lesson plans must be approved by the local school board.

First misstep

Recently, an article appeared in the Toronto Star in which I was quoted regarding the way terms for genitals would be discussed in grade one. The headline referred to "sanitized" sex-ed (as if teaching dictionary words for genitals needed cleaning up). The curriculum guideline requires the teacher to "identify body parts, including genitalia (e.g., penis, testicles, vagina, vulva), using correct terminology."

So that's what they are teaching, right?

After months of discussion, the school cited in the article ended up offering parents "religious accommodation," allowing their children to opt out of a dictionary word class to attend a euphemism class. The following day I was asked to do five interviews of which I did three (in both official languages). I very publicly said that the school had unwittingly emboldened parents to challenge the curriculum at every level from grade one to grade 12.

It is the children who will pay. Starting in grade one they will lack the basic building blocks of language, the basis of future sexual health education.

Some educators argue that at least these kids will get something. They point out -- and rightly so -- that because there is no real oversight/monitoring over how -- or even whether -- sexual health information is taught, there are likely thousands of school children throughout the province who continue to have little or no sexual health information in the classroom because their teacher just skips that part of the curriculum. I do not agree, but I do commiserate with the principal who over many months tirelessly attempted to change parents' minds.

To teach or not to teach menstruation

The second misstep came from school boards relying on the official lesson plans put out by OPHEA . Puberty is now to be taught across the province starting in grade four rather than waiting for grade five. And a good thing, too, especially given the drop in age of menarche.

But OPHEA has taken menstruation out of the grade four curriculum despite the guideline that stipulates secondary sexual characteristics are to be taught:

"Describe the physical changes that occur in males and females at puberty (e.g., growth of body hair, breast development, changes in voice and body size, production of body odour, skin changes) and the emotional and social impacts that may result from these changes."

The curriculum provides examples, but in no way prohibits teaching the physical change most likely to frighten girls unless they are aware of its approach. Unfortunately, OPHEA interpreted the examples as limitations.

Teachers (and sexual health promoters who often assist teachers with the curriculum) were put in a bind. They were not to teach menstruation; they were not to answer questions about menstruation. A colleague pointed out recently, "There are no age inappropriate questions"; and of course, teachers learn how to answer questions in age appropriate ways.

On the other hand, the OPHEA package contains the following gem:

"People with vaginas should wash their external genital area (vulva) regularly with warm water... Douching (using soaps or water in the inner vagina [sic] is not recommended because it may upset the pH balance of the vagina." (Grade 4 Understanding Changes at Puberty Personal Hygiene.)

So don't teach about menstruation, but introduce the fact that some women douche and it's not a good idea.

When contacted by e-mail, an Education Officer in the Ministry of Education noted that

"while the Ministry of Education is responsible for developing curriculum policy, implementation of policy is the responsibility of school boards; and that the curriculum includes 'detailed lists of examples that teachers may (but do not have to) use in the planning instructions for students...'"

One sexual health promoter I spoke to said, "You can't go in and not do your job." So either staff are considered "guests" and dance around the facts; or they do their job. Because, if they can't do their job, what's the point of going into the classroom?

Parents say they want to be the first sexual health educators of their own children, but many shirk this responsibility because of embarrassment or lack of information. That is the reason such a high percentage of Canadian parents support sexual health education in the schools.

"Studies conducted in different parts of Canada have consistently found that over 85 per cent of parents agreed with the statement 'Sexual health education should be provided in the schools.'"

Many grade one children will finish the school year with no dictionary words for their genitals; and some grade four girls will start bleeding from a place in their body for which they either have no name, a family name or, if they are lucky, a dictionary word. Like many of our mothers -- and perhaps many of us as well -- they will think they are hurt or dying.

That is a very big misstep indeed.

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