It’s not just about the sex
When asked, “Why is this a popular class?” Kiana, a senior at Butler High School, responded, “Because it’s real. It’s real life.” London, another senior Bear said, “You can say whatever you want, and she’ll listen to you.” The “she” is health and wellness teacher, Mary Wurst, and she has listened to and heard it all.
Suicide, depression, drug overdose, rape, sexual molestation, abortion and abuse, even issues of racism are all part of the “curriculum” in Ms. Wurst’s sex education class. This is not part of some sensationalistic teaching strategy designed to shock and scare girls away from sex, but rather a comprehensive curriculum that is driven by the girls themselves, from real life experiences; it is a curriculum and a class built on trust, mutual care and support, and it is real. It is not simply sex education, but comprehensive health and wellness. It is not just learned, but lived.
Sex education for many is the uncomfortable, sometimes torturous, routine kids must suffer through in order to understand that there are penises and vaginas in the world, and both can get you into all sorts of trouble. Sex education can have a tremendously positive impact on the rest of someone’s life if done well, but can also have disastrously adverse effects if done poorly or not at all. Making sex education comfortable and meaningful for everyone involved is what makes Ms. Wurst and Butler so effective — and different. Unfortunately, for students at some other Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), as well as schools around the Commonwealth and country, comprehensive life skills classes and teachers like Ms. Wurst are not the norm.
JCPS and the Commonwealth
Kentucky is 1 of only 22 states that does require sex education be taught in public schools — but this is a bit misleading. In reality, the only standard that is required to be covered in public schools is the benefits of abstinence to health and wellness. In other words, Kentucky requires “don’t-even-think-about-it” education be covered in schools, but nothing else.
In this sense, Kentucky is predictably 1 of only 12 states requiring abstinence education in public schools. (It could be worse; Alabama, South Carolina, Texas and Utah require curricula that include only “negative information on sexual orientation.”) And while there is an abundance of research that demonstrates that abstinence-only is ineffective and, in fact, detrimental to the health and safetey of students — when measured by sexual health knowledge, sexually transmitted infections (STI’s) as well as unplanned and teen pregnancies. The good news, however, is that Kentucky law does not restrict the excellent teachers and administrators who believe in comprehensive health and wellness education, like Ms. Wurst and Butler High School. (We’ll get back to the abstinence-only education later.)
JCPS as a whole does not help bring clarity to the varying approaches to sex ed taken by different schools. In fact, the situation is so muddled that — in some cases — even within a single school, different classes are receiving different information, because the responsibility (or liberty) to design sex ed curricula is left up to the teacher.
According to a white paper on sex ed in JCPS produced by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Kentucky, “Nearly every public high school in Jefferson County is teaching their students something different. Even within the same high school, different health or physical education teachers are teaching different curricula.”
The reason for this — beyond the lack of guidance provided by both the Kentucky and Federal Departments of Education — is that JCPS is required by Kentucky law to operate on a system that leaves a large amount of decision-making up to a council comprising members from each individual school. According to the JCPS website, “School-Based Decision Making (SBDM) Councils create school policies and make a wide range of decisions, from selecting textbooks to choosing a new principal.” By law, schools in the district must operate with one of these councils, and they usually consist of three teachers, two parents and an administrator.
In all fairness, the parents and teachers are elected to their council in an effort to create varied perspectives, opinions and expertise, which ultimately should lead to better student experience and performance by creating the most personalized learning environment possible. And that is certainly an initiative that everyone can support, in theory, particularly when any decision has to conform to policies set forth by the Jefferson County Board of Education, as well as the Kentucky Department of Education.
That said, the members of these councils are elected to one-year terms. And for parents to be eligible for election, their child (or student for which they are a legal guardian) must be pre-enrolled in that specific school.
These councils are tasked with making some high-level determinations for the individual school.
For instance, according to the SBDM website, the councils have authority in nearly 20 areas, including: “Determining the number of persons to be employed in each job classification (e.g., teachers, counselors), selecting instructional materials, textbooks, and school-support services, determining budget for the school from allocations provided, determining the curriculum, assigning of staff time, assigning of students to classes, planning instructional practices,” and several others, including “wellness.”
While this could clearly lead to problems with year-to-year continuity in a number of areas, it underscores the desperate need for comprehensive sex, health and wellness education in Jefferson County and Kentucky. The substance and implementation of vital, fundamental health education should not be vulnerable to the annual change of three people, two of whom may not have any background or expertise in education and both who may be motivated by personal bias or religious beliefs to teach abstinence only. Furthermore, neither should the teachers who teach sex ed nor the students who stand to benefit from quality, comprehensive health and wellness information be vulnerable to this annual turnover.
One of the unacceptable pitfalls of the way sex ed is structured is that it allows for unintended alliances and consequences, as well as personal biases to stand in the way of rapid social change. For example, if two parents who are vehemently opposed to teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation make their way onto a given council, and even one of the teachers or administrators questions the timing or resources available to make a change to include these topics in the curriculum, it could be left out; if not for biased reasons, then possibly because of uncertainty about how this subject should be taught or addressed. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that a parent with no formal background in education would have apprehensions about changing a curriculum even if they disagreed with antiquated or untested teaching materials, texts or practices.
Perhaps this is why in 2010 five schools in Jefferson County addressed the subject of gender identity or sexual orientation in a non-inclusive manner, which according to an ACLU report, has had a detrimental impact on the health of LGBT+ youth. This same report also says, “Few schools are teaching about the use of barrier methods such as condoms, and only three are teaching contraception in its entirety.” And this is unacceptable because there are tangible, real-life impacts the proper education can have on each student, in each class, each year.
The ACLU specifically recommends that “JCPS find one book and set of curricula or offer a variety of curricula that are evidence-based … Teachers should not be able to make judgement calls on what should be taught based upon their own personal belief and morals (this was noted at Western High by two different teachers).”
House Representative Mary Lou Marzian (D-Louisville) has introduced legislation in Frankfort to address many of these issues each of the last several years and intends to file it again when the state legislature reconvenes in January. Section four of the bill establishes “sex education requirements” and states that “each school shall provide medically accurate, developmentally and age-appropriate sex education in grades 6-12 at all public middle and secondary schools.” The bill would require that a curriculum include the importance of contraceptives in preventing pregnancy and STI’s; healthy relationship skills, including violence, coercion and sexual intimidation aversion; healthy decision-making skills; the encouragement of open communication with parents/guardians, health care professionals and other trusted adults; explicit permission for teachers to answer any student questions; and the provision that “sex education shall not discriminate on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
Finally, for parents, this legislation would not only require that the curriculum be made available to them upon request, but that a student be excused from any instruction at a parent’s request without disciplinary action or academic penalty.
This is a tremendous piece of legislation. It addresses most, if not all, recommendations by the ACLU to provide an evidenced-based comprehensive sex-education curriculum, which has been demonstrated to reduce unintended pregnancies, the spread of STI’s and to promote positive, informed, healthy decision-making. It also addresses (or should address) the concern of parents who are uncertain or uncomfortable with any of the curriculum.
For Butler’s health and wellness teacher, Ms. Wurst, involving the parents early, as well as keeping an open-door policy with everyone at all times, has proven valuable. She said, “I am very up front with my parents. I have a parent meeting, I send a letter home … and if a parent does not feel comfortable with what’s going on, they can call me. They can send this back if they don’t want their child in here. I’ve taught 23 years, I’ve had one letter come back.” She continued to explain, “Because here’s the thing, a lot of the parents just want you to be up front. They don’t want to think that you’re doing something behind their back … And I’ve never had any issues. But I think part of that is because I tell them up front what we’re doing, and give them an option.”
Benefits of abstinence vs. abstinence-only education
Proponents of comprehensive sex education do not advocate for leaving the option of abstinence out of the sex ed curriculum. The option of abstinence is essential and inherent to a thorough, thoughtful sex education curricula, because real sex education teaches healthy living (i.e. if you decide to wait before having sex, that is perfectly fine and you don’t have to worry about the creepy-crawlies or unexpected additions to the family). The problem with abstinence-only is that too much of the teaching is not fact-based, but is built on fear and deception and withholds valuable, possibly life-saving, information. In large part, it rests upon the ignorant and inaccurate assumption that if people don’t know that there is a safe way to “do it,” they won’t. But kids are going to try alcohol even if they don’t know that it can be consumed safely. (In part because it is so widely marketed, like sex, but that’s a whole other article.)
Furthermore, the perception that sex ed has to be abstinence-only or safe sex is a false dichotomy created, intentionally or not, by ardent opponents of comprehensive sex education, who are unwilling to accept the statistical, fact-based evidence — much less reasonably acknowledge basic human nature — that they are wrong: Abstinence-only education has statistically demonstrated it provides no health benefits and, in fact, has proven to be detrimental to students in numerous ways.
According to the ACLU, “Studies have noted that the affects [sic] of abstinence-only programs diminish over time and that there has been no significant impact on delaying the onset of sexual intercourse … In fact, a systematic review of 13 trials found that abstinence-only programs were not associated with reductions in sexual risk behaviors or in diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections, but were more likely to engage in higher risk behaviors once they initiate sexual activity.”
And when looking at the array of studies, both nationally and in Kentucky, it is unclear exactly what the goal or motivation of abstinence-only education is, if not to exert control over kids arbitrarily and keep them from having sex before marriage, possibly acting as an extension of religious teachings by means outside of the church. From teen pregnancy to disease control, basic human anatomy, understanding and respect for other sexes and those of a different sexual orientation, by any measure abstinence-only not only fails, but undermines these goals, which most would agree are important measures for society.
Studies cited in the ACLU white paper conclude that “Comprehensive sex education programs have been shown to delay the onset of intercourse, reduce the frequency of intercourse, decrease the number of sexual partners, and increase condom or other contraceptive use, therefore reducing sexual risk-taking behavior … Comprehensive programs are associated with a 50 percent lower risk of teen pregnancy than abstinence-only programs.”
Furthermore, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, in 2012, reported, “In Kentucky, at the high school level, more than 8 in 10 parents would favor teaching communication skills (99%), information about HIV and sexually transmitted infections (97%), human anatomy (97%), abstinence education (94%), birth control methods (87%), and condom use (84%).” So if parents are overwhelmingly on the side of comprehensive education — which, if you notice, includes abstinence education — then what forces continue to drive the abstinence-only approach?
Ultimately, the problem must be the unfortunate, unintended result of a combination of factors: the absence of a standardized and comprehensive sex ed curriculum; the state’s permitting — if not encouraging — abstinence-only programming; and a prevalent problem with schools across America in which math and science get all of the attention and resources, marginalizing other subjects — even potentially life-saving classes like health and wellness.
So if these are the problems, what are the solutions? Well, there is a “real class” at Butler High School that is really making a difference in kids’ lives.
Ms. Wurst does it best
As illustrated by student quotations in the introduction, Ms. Wurst teaches the most popular class at Butler High School. What began as one class of 30 students about five years ago quickly turned into six full periods — without a planning period — to accommodate student demand. It became so popular that Butler had to create a similar class for the boys who argued it wasn’t fair that girls got to take the course and they didn’t.
Ms. Wurst’s health and wellness course is not simply sex education, but overall health, including mental health security, as well as problem-solving, critical-thinking, decision-making, healthy behavior and communication skills.
The curriculum is student-centered and based on mutual trust and respect. First and foremost, what happens in Ms. Wurst’s classroom, stays in Ms. Wurst’s classroom. It is the “Vegas rule,” and it is taken as seriously as cheating in any other classroom. That is because the foundation for success of the entire class depends on the safe, trustworthy environment created within the four walls of that classroom, in which all students actively and openly participate. If anyone believes or doubts that something they say may be repeated out in the hallways, then the class is broken. Without trust, comfort, security, mutual-support and empathy, as well as faith in a strictly judge-free zone, nothing can be achieved.
While some disagree with her approach, Ms. Wurst has found that separating the girls from the boys is the most — if not only — effective way to maximize student participation. The fundamental truth is that boys and girls are much more likely to share intimate, personal details if the other sex is not in the room. She explains, “I know some people don’t agree with this, but I do split the boys and girls up. And the reason for that is, after 20-some-odd years of teaching, the boys will be more open, they feel more comfortable. The ladies will be more open, feel more comfortable.”
One trait that is common among all good teachers is the ability to adapt. Whether it be in an instant or over the course of time, effective teachers are like water — they will find a way. For instance, the decision to split the boys and the girls stemmed from years of experience and results that Ms. Wurst found unsatisfactory. She explains, “When I used to try to do the curriculum together, the boys, of course they knew everything, and the girls wouldn’t say a word. And once I started splitting them up … I mean, you get great questions, and they’re not afraid to ask questions either.”
And when Ms. Wurst says that “you get great questions,” she means you get the incredible, unbelievable, at time heartbreaking questions. Sometimes they are asked out loud, but for students who are uncomfortable about asking publicly, there is the question jar. The rule is that any question placed in the question jar will be answered or discussed. This is where the class gets questions about everything from abortion and types of contraception to some subjects and issues that only a prepared, caring teacher can handle.
Some of the more benign, but important questions Ms. Wurst encounters every year are “Is a Ziploc bag an okay replacement for a condom?” “I heard you cannot get pregnant if you do it standing up. Is that true?” “Why do you have eyelashes?” “Why do you have cramps?” and “Is Plan B an abortion?” On the other hand, there are questions and issues that would test anyone’s composure and the limits of belief: “I’ve been sexually abused by my mom’s boyfriend for 10 years. What do I do?”
A question such as that would only be asked in an environment where the students trust their teacher and one another. And, as unimaginable as it is that this sort of abuse occurs, it is all-too-imaginable that the victim would have nobody to turn to, and no idea how to find help.
As with a math or science problem, often what is most important is not getting the right answer, but finding a way to an answer. Through discussion, thinking aloud, problem-solving, or asking additional questions, sometimes it is about the process of reaching the answer, rather than giving the “right” answer. So, often times Ms. Wurst will just toss the issue back to the class for them to talk it out. She describes, “So, sometimes I’ll let the kids actually answer, and say ‘do you have advice for them? And they’ll give their advice, and I’ll give my advice. And they walk out of here, and they don’t feel alone.” She continues to explain, “They might find out that there are five other kids in class going through the exact same thing they’re going through. So instead of feeling isolated and alone, now they’re like, ‘Maybe I’m not the only one dealing with this problem.’”
And again, this is not a thrill for sensationalism, or shock-and-scare, but rather for real issues that affect real kids on a daily basis. If for no other reason, as Ms. Wurst learned from her years of encountering these real issues, mental health must be addressed before anything else matters; math and science don’t matter if someone is contemplating suicide, or depressed, or witnessed their friend get shot and killed (which she told me happened to one of her girls within the last few weeks). She remembers the moment she realized that, and admits it changed everything for her: “My first year I taught here (at Butler), eight years ago, we had a suicide, and it completely changed me. I thought, I’d always done all these things, but after that, the mental health, for me actually is above everything else. That they build those resiliency skills, and understand depression is not weakness, you’ve got to ask for help.” That is why she designed the course the way she did, saying, “Once we do the curriculum with them, and I tell them, ‘You’ve got the power, if you know your friends are going through this, you’ve got to do something.’ They buy into it.”
In one instance, one of her students came to her after noticing some troubling posts on a friend’s social media, who attended another school. Ms. Wurst called the counselor at the school, who met with the student and mother. Sadly, the mother disregarded the warnings, and soon thereafter the girl overdosed on drugs. While the young woman survived the overdose, the school counselor called back to thank Ms. Wurst for notifying them. A proud Ms. Wurst responded, “Don’t thank me. The senior is the one who did it.”
Ultimately, this epitomizes the goal of the student-driven, student-focused curriculum. Ms. Wurst is happy to say that, “Everyone gets something different out of the class.”
In the end, it is all about health and wellness
In a May 2015 Washington Post article titled “Renew the U.S. commitment to sex education,” the authors point out that “Every hour in this country, 70 teenagers become pregnant, 1,100 youth acquire an STD and one young person contracts HIV.” According to the ACLU, “In this era of technology and medical advancement, the United States has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy among the developed nations [and] American teens are also less likely than teens in other countries to utilize available methods of birth control.”
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy shows that Kentucky is improving, but more slowly than other states, and still stuck near the bottom, when it comes to issues relating to teen birth rates. In 2013, there were over 5,400 teen births, making the Commonwealth the 44th in the country. That is down from almost 9,000 in 2010, which cost Kentucky taxpayers $158 million in childbearing services. (Overall unplanned pregnancies cost the state $378 million.)
Further, (again in 2013) almost 45 percent of all high school students in Kentucky reported having ever had sex, and over 12 percent had four or more sexual partners … by end of high school. While not specifying usual behavior, they found that during “last sex,” 85 percent of the same high schoolers used some form of contraception, but only half used a condom, and only one in five girls used birth control pills.
Abstinence and sex education are really only two pieces of a much larger pie. Both should be taught as part of a comprehensive health and wellness program. Mary Wurst sums up the need for, and opportunity within, a comprehensive health and wellness program, when explaining the myths and ignorance that plagues kids as it relates to basic condom use: “Part of it’s embarrassment. Part of it is — I’m not trying to be inflammatory but — ignorance. The myths that they believe because they haven’t had any education; you can’t get pregnant if you’re standing up having sex; you can’t get pregnant the first time. But these are things that I’ve heard every year for 20-some-odd years … So, they believe that unless you allow them an avenue to ask questions. If you teach abstinence only, why would they ever ask those questions in your class? … So how is that helping them? It just puts them in a bad situation.”