The Sex-ed Evolution Local schools follow a national trend toward a more thorough—and realistic—human sexuality-related dialogue starting as early as fourth grade.

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I remember the crickets the summer of 1995 when I was 16. I remember sitting alone at night on the wooden steps of my parents’ comfortable north-ern New Jersey home, the home I grew up in, the summer before my senior year of high school, thinking: I can’t do this. How am I ever going to do this? How am I going to live this life?

I was still questioning my sexual orientation; I think deep down in my heart, I knew I was gay. And it scared the hell out of me.

I can remember the crickets singing, hiding in the green. I also remember feeling like I was a freak. I can remember a slight night wind tickling the grass and the leaves and the raspberry bushes and the mint that grew next to those steps. I remember thinking I was a bad person. I remember feeling so alone, wishing desperately that I had someone to talk to, knowing that I would go crazy with-out someone to talk to.

I wound up coming out to my best friend that Labor Day weekend. While she was wonderful and understanding, things only improved incrementally, and the self-bullying I’d started years before consumed my final year of high school and my early college years.

This is not a memory that I ever thought I’d write down, especially in a public setting. But almost exactly two decades later, I see that a good human sexuality curriculum implemented during my earlier childhood could have prevented my bad feelings and helped me feel normal. Thankfully, the world is a different place now, at least here in America. It’s different here in Baltimore, too, where more and more schools are implementing broad sexual education curricula, most of which include open discussion of things that were only briefly touched upon (or glossed over) when I was in high school, such as LGBT issues.

At Friends School, fourth-grade students learn the biology of reproduc-tion, then bring home three-dimen-sional models of the male and female reproductive system to give a biological “presentation” to their parents on the basics of human reproduction. They read “It’s So Amazing: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families” together in class, then ask homeroom teacher Jillien Lakatta anonymous questions via index cards.

Additionally, roving educator Deborah Roffman—known affectionately as “the Sex Lady” among the diverse schools and institutions she visits—offers faculty guidance on how to best handle issues in the classroom.

One question that came up in Lakatta’s fourth grade class: “How do gay people have sex?”

“Gay people do the same things just like everyone does—it’s just not the penis and vagina [equation],” replied Lakatta.

Each spring, as a way of encouraging open dialogue at home, Lakatta gives her students the assignment to go home and ask Mom or Dad when they started puberty, with the caveat: Don’t bring your parent’s graphic personal anecdotes to class!

“A lot of parents ask me, ‘Why so early?’ ” Lakatta says. “The key [to good sex education] is the dialogue with the parents. Once you hit a certain age, kids don’t want to talk to their parents any-more. We don’t want to miss the window. Starting in fourth grade demystifies sex and gives the kids power. And the parents know exactly what we’re going over, and when. They know, ‘Wow, they’re coming home with a lot of information today.”

Impressively, the Friends Lower School came together to screen the documen-tary “I Am Jazz: A Family in Transition,” an OWN network mini-series about an 11-year-old male-to-female transsexual child who identified as female as soon as she was verbal.

At Garrison Forest School, an all-girls institution in Owings Mills, a peer education initiative trains high school students to talk to middle schoolers about how to make good decisions and think critically about relationships.

St. Paul’s Independent Day School (for boys at the Middle and Upper levels) has pioneered a Rainbow Crusader program that trains high school students to be compassionate LGBT allies. The program not only sets a school-wide tone of inclusivity and acceptance, it provides a safe space for those question-ing or struggling with their sexual orien-tation or gender identity to discuss these issues with peers.

Baltimore County Public Schools start health education—an umbrella term for seven content areas, including human sexuality—in kindergarten, focusing on family life curriculum, then incorporat-ing puberty and reproduction in fifth grade. The school system’s health educa-tion teachers have all had professional development on LGBT issues and work-ing with sexually diverse youth. The curriculum incorporates respecting differences in sexual orientation and gender, as well as bullying prevention.
That said, Jonathan Zimmerman, author of “Hot and Bothered: How Globalization Stymied Sex Education” wonders how nuanced and specific a public school setting can afford to be.

“If public school teachers go into too much detail, they may insult someone within a very large community,” says Zimmerman. “Independent schools have to take into account an entire commu-nity’s points of view, but it’s a smaller community. In public schools, there’s a burden policing the consensus among a huge community—there’s disagreement about whether students are sexual be-ings. They aren’t discussing things with the same level of explicitness.”

“It’s terrific that the county teachers have addressed LGBT subject matter, but given what we know about diversity in this country, it could be difficult for them to teach the subject except for in the most bland, general way,” he adds.

Roffman, who has conducted talks in Baltimore public schools as well, disagrees vehemently—and did so recently in The New York Times, where she rebutted Zimmerman in a comment: “As a human sexuality educator who has worked with parents across the United States for more than 40 years, I find con-sensus everywhere I go. There is huge agreement about the human and ethical values adults want young people to bring to all of their decisions in life, including sexual decisions: empathy, compassion, honesty, responsibility, respect, dignity, mutuality, equity, fairness and safety.”

THERE’S NO debate that all of the schools I researched, public included, do provide sexual education from elemen-tary school through high school, and all address LGBT subject matter—that’s far earlier and more elaborate instruction than I received.

Why has such educational evolution taken so long to arrive that, for example, children of the 90s and before missed the boat? The root of the problem, according to Roffman, is misplaced anxiety. With a home base at the Park School of Baltimore, the human sexual-ity educator and author of “Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go-To” Person About Sex” says this anxiety starts young and is hard to unlearn.

“What most people remember is how the sex-ed unit was a departure from how we were taught everything else,” she says. “When I ask people to share their stories, it’s not about what they learned, but all the ways it was an out-of-context experience.”

Roffman says we need to think of sex ed as “life education,” not as a special topic but a core subject. Human sexuality education “needs to be a spiraling curriculum from the earlier ages on up. Until we have that, we are perpetuating a model that does not support healthy growth and development.

“We just don’t get it. We have eye-dropper vision. We see the word ‘sex’ and we think that’s what this whole thing is about. It’s about the human being—the human being attached to the genitals,” she says.

When a progressive local mom I’ll call Janet—the mother of two girls who attended private Baltimore schools in recent years and who prefers to remain anonymous—began to wonder if her 15-year-old daughter Anna might be contemplating sex, she got together with two other moms and threw a mother-daughter sex empowerment powwow at their favorite casual restaurant. Three moms, three daughters, and a “You can ask any of us anything you want” policy, which Janet, an artist, told the girls.

“We said, ‘We know you’re fooling around and we’d like you to wait but we’re here if you need us to answer ques-tions or provide birth control pills, the morning-after pill, condoms, you name it. If you make that choice you need to come to any one of us. You don’t have to go to your mom.”

Janet’s daughter did embark on a sexual relationship with her steady boyfriend over the next few months and she opted to speak first to her friend’s mother rather than Janet—but, after six months, she came to her own mom for advice. Janet says she was fine with that but relieved to have everything out in the open between them.
“They’re not waiting,” Janet says. “I didn’t either. But the first time I saw an erect penis in high school, I was utterly stunned. We didn’t get the ‘whole blood flow equals erection’ thing. I said to the guy, ‘It’s sticking up! Nobody ever told me that.”

NATALIE LINDEN, 18, who graduated from Friends this year but attended Bryn Mawr, an all-girls school in Baltimore, until she transferred to Friends as a sophomore, says that there’s still room for improvement on the sex ed front—room, in particular, for expert/advanced instruction and casual discussion forums.

“The sex education at Bryn Mawr was mostly based around contraception and biology,” Linden, who identifies as queer or pansexual, says. “We also discussed unhealthy relationships and abuse, which I found very valuable. The one time we did talk about sexuality and gen-der identity, which was very brief, the teacher told me that a transvestite was the same thing as someone who was transgender or transsexual. Having been required to study Latin for two years, I told them that it wasn’t true because ‘vest’ referred to clothing, not gender or sexuality. However, the teacher insisted that I was incorrect.”

In terms of sexual orientation, Linden continues, “We got the talk, ‘sometimes girls like girls, and sometimes boys like boys,’ but that was about it. Unfortunately, because I came to Friends late, I missed any of their sex education.”

Linden says that her parents—in keep-ing with Janet’s approach—gave her and her twin brother a supply of condoms soon after they turned 15. When she came out to her parents, she says, “They said that they loved me and supported me, as I expected.”

Elena Michelson, director of counsel-ing at Garrison Forest School, had an era-specific experience with sex ed. Now she, too, is out to change the face of sex ed at her school—fostering open, honest discussions and assuring students at the all-girls institution that they’re completely normal, whether they’re having sex or not, and whether they’re gay, straight or anything in between.

“It’s important for them to know, if you’re not engaging in this, you’re in the norm—don’t rush because you think you need to keep up,” she says.

With sex ed clearly trying to come of age and with so much information avail-able online about sex (and everything thing else), it’s temping to think that students, teenagers in particular, know what’s what in terms of sex. But that’s not always the case, asserts Dr. Oscar Taube, director of the Division of Primary Care and Adolescent Medicine at the Herman and Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospi-tal at Sinai, which makes sex ed that much more necessary.

“There have been lots of good studies over the years that show that the amount of misinformation among teenagers [about sex] is very high,” he says. “Teenagers need a safe, accepting adult to ask questions and figure things out. It’s very important. Not just the infor-mation, but the ethical issues involved.”

“What’s a good relationship? What’s a bad relationship?” Concepts that apply to future intimate relationships, he contin-ues, “should start in the elementary school years.”

One new educational resource provid-ing real-world information about such good and bad relationships is the Sexual Assault and Forensic Examination (SAFE) Unit at GBMC, “which does a lot of work on the risks of violence of all ages, but certainly with some emphasis on teens and young adults,” says Greg Shaffer, director of marketing and government relations for the hospital. “They actively talk about dangers of drinking, drug use, unhealthy relation-ships—and how that can lead to sexual assault.”

From a scientific standpoint, a solid, ongoing, holistic education on human sexuality is essential. The brains of adolescents are still developing, espe-cially the frontal lobe, which, according to Taube, “kind of acts as the executive moderator of behavior.”
“It’s the part of the brain that says, ‘If I do this, the implication may be that.’

That is an underdeveloped part of the brain in adolescents,” and why it’s espe-cially important that schools teach the ins and outs of self-esteem and good decision-making—from distinguishing between healthy relationships and unhealthy relationships to whether or not to ask for, or send, a sexually explicit text.

Let’s face it: Texts among teens—and sometimes, unfortunately, “sexts”—are flying. Adolescents are valuing their self-worth on how many likes they’re getting for each selfie they post. It’s a lot. And without an adult—an educator and/or a parent—to help them process every-thing, and help them make good decisions, things can go bad, fast.

Those concepts are something that Jacqueline Villet, upper school counselor and health teacher at St. Paul’s Independ-ent Day School, regularly discusses with her all-male student population—and why the school’s relationship-based sex ed curriculum is so effective.

It’s “not just anatomy 101” anymore when it comes to sex ed, Villet states. The boys at St. Paul’s are taught about the consequences of intimacy and the healthy decision-making skills necessary to make the right choices when it comes to sex.

And those choices aren’t limited to sex. They extend to communicating with peers, online and off.

“Sexting has become almost the norm to the point where young people don’t even realize that it’s wrong. They proba-bly feel like it’s worse to not do it because everyone’s doing it,” Villet says. “Teens can’t appreciate the idea that what you put out there is forever. There is no delete button. I think the best way to prevent those kinds of things from happening is to talk about it, to make them aware of the emotional”—and legal—“implica-tions of these kinds of things.”

That comes in the form of regular con-versations with her students about the dangers of things like sexting, where she often cites major news stories in which sexting has gotten some teens in very hot water. In at least 20 states, laws now exist that carry penalties for underage sext senders—that means, if a minor transmits a nude photograph or video, he or she may be fined or forced to work community service hours.

“I picked up my friend’s son’s phone—and his friend had sent a naked photo of his girlfriend,” says Janet. “‘You can’t trust guys,’ the boy said. I told that to my girls.”

It’s exactly this kind of open and inti-mate parent/child relationship Roffman hopes to foster.

“Kids feel well-educated [about sexu-ality] but they’re really not,” she says. “No one is teaching them how to think. They need the immediate adults in their lives to step up and help kids think critically.”

“This is an ongoing life lesson,” Roffman concludes. “It’s education for life and how to have a satisfying, loving, successful life. An ethical life. Sexuality is just woven into the mix.”

Education like that can help students look into their future and see a happy ending—something I wasn’t able to do back when I was their age—but some-thing I luckily (and happily) stumbled into when I met Holly, the love of my life, just six years after I sat alone on those steps listening to the crickets.

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