You remember what it was like, sitting in a special classroom, maybe one with couches instead of desks. The boys typically congregated to one side and the girls to the other. And the teacher—not your regular teacher—went around the room and made everyone say the words “penis” and “vagina” without laughing, while your best friend sat across from you flicking his tongue between two of his fingers.
Yes, that adolescent rite of passage known as the school-sanctioned sex ed class will arrive in New York City schools next year, albeit with stakes far more serious than misspelling “fallopian”: it comes accompanied by the kind of media maelstrom reminiscent of the culture wars of 20 years ago. (Jocelyn Elders, is that you?)
At issue is a new directive from the Bloomberg administration mandating sex ed for all seventh to 10th graders. The measure is part of the Bloomberg administration’s “Young Men’s Initiative,” a much-ballyhooed, $127 million program—$30 million of that from the mayor’s own pocket—that aims to boost the career and life prospects of several hundred thousand black and Latino young men.
“Some of the figures I have seen are figures we should not be tolerating,” said schools chancellor Dennis Walcott, citing in particular rising rates of chlamydia among teens. “We have to systematize the process of teaching this in schools and the negative impact it’s having on teenagers.”
“Now we are actually going to teach them how to have sex,” countered Chris Slattery, the president of a crisis pregnancy center. “There will be exposure to different types of sex. Discussion of oral sex and anal sex, I’m sure. There will be some coverage of homosexual sex, no doubt. How to put on condoms. And we don’t know the extent of it because of course there is a lot of freedom given to teachers.”
Asked if he is able to make this assertion due to first-hand knowledge of the curriculum, Mr. Slattery demurred.
“Others have. People I know. And the New York Post has reported on what is in the curriculum.”
Indeed, the Post did report that now city schools will be forced to cover “readin’ ’ritin’—and rubbers,” and an editorial in the paper accused Mr. Walcott of foisting a “how-to manual” on unsuspecting school children.
Around the same time, a number of elected officials joined up with conservative and religious groups, and brought on ace local Republican messaging guru William O’Reilly—the man behind Bob Turner’s upset win in a special election for Anthony Weiner’s former House seat—and took the case to the people. They were led by Michael Benjamin, an ambitious former Democratic state legislator who has been making noises about running for Congress, and Michael Faulkner, a Harlem pastor who last year ran on the Republican line against Charlie Rangel.
“It really cuts to the core of what rights parents have,” said Mr. O’Reilly. “It’s federal law that parents have the right to know what their children are being taught about in social studies. Why should it be any different with sex ed? This is getting railroaded through and it’s not right.”
There was a rally on the City Hall steps. Another in front of an elementary school in Bay Ridge. A meeting with Department of Education officials was demanded. When that demand was met, a further demand was made that the D.O.E. host town halls around the city to explain the new curriculum. Archbishop Timothy Dolan wrote in an op-ed that the new program was “horribly misguided” and “shockingly graphic.” The story got picked up by all of the major dailies, Yahoo News—which expressed surprise that such a controversy could occur even in permissive Gotham—The Guardian and CNN. Sean Hannity noted the city schools’ relatively low graduation rates and said, “They are falling down on reading, writing and math, but in the older grades, then they get into S.&M., oral sex with braces, fetishes, porn stars, vibrators and bestiality!”
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” sighed Natalie Ravitz, a spokesman for the Department of Education. “People are upset by elements that aren’t actually in the curriculum.”
She sat in the bullpen of the former Tweed courthouse, the century-and-a-half-old Italianate marvel that now houses the D.O.E. On a table were arrayed some of the workbooks and lesson plans that are a part of the new curriculum. The overwhelming impression of it is that its authors went through an extraordinary effort to keep it gender neutral.