Let’s Talk About Sex: Teachers Confront Difficulty of Helping Students Make Smart Choices

By Adelle MacDowell

The state of Vermont has recently come out with new laws pertaining to health education in schools, especially regarding sexual education. 

Health teacher Jeff Robinson and school nurse Florence Kelley both agree that the topic is important, and hope that the new laws will improve the way students receive and understand sex ed. 

In a memorandum addressed to “Superintendents, Principals, Headmasters, and Health Educators” in Vermont, the Department of Health and Agency of Education states “young people need access to comprehensive information that is medically accurate, developmentally appropriate, and inclusive to their identities.”  

Addressing sexual education directly, the memorandum explains “there is a need for young people to be informed and prepared to make decisions about sexual activity.”     

According to Youth Risk Behavior Survey data, 40% of high school students in Vermont have engaged in sexual intercourse. Out of those students, less than a third say they have used condoms. The memorandum points to “promoting information about healthy choices and relationships,” as a means to improve that statistic. 

Conversations about sex can be difficult ones, both within the classroom and outside of it, Robinson acknowledges, saying “I think that for a lot of parents to have a conversation with their kid around sex is not a comfortable conversation.”  He also adds that “anytime you put the word ‘sex’ into anything, people want to kind of back away from it.”  

In his class, he addresses the topic through a variety of units—for example, he teaches about STI’s during the disease unit—and he says that building a level of comfort with students is essential to teaching the topic. 

Robinson hopes that the changes the law will put in place will better equip students to deal with issues like birth control, contraceptives, and consent. 

He also put forth another idea to make his class more effective; “hopefully, the health course will become a tenth grade class, which, especially for sex ed, will help with the conversations and the comfort level within those conversations as well.”

Another aspect of sex ed is the possibility of condom distribution. The state offers guidelines on the topic, but doesn’t require it.  In regard to having condoms available in schools, Kelley says she’s talked to other school nurses and “honestly, there are very few schools right now who do it.”  

Kelley is fully in favor of the idea, and stated simply “providing condoms would help assure safety and health.”  Robinson agrees; “if they’re gonna have sex, they’re gonna have sex. It just offers them a safer way.” 

Both Kelley and Robinson are aware, though, that it’s not as simple as that. School board and parent approval would be necessary in order to have condoms available for students. 

“I’m not sure the community at large would be very accepting of it,” says Robinson. Kelley adds, “the process itself is kind of difficult because you really have to get buy-in from your community and the parents.”

The takeaway? These new laws should help improve sex ed and health education in general as our district implements them. As for condom distribution in our school, it would likely be a difficult step to take, since parent and community support is vital to carrying it out.

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