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Nov
29
2022
Yellow Springs School Board

School board talks sex education

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The YS Board of Education discussed health and sex education in the schools during a work session on Thursday, Sept. 19. Discussion focused on the schools’ current curricula in those areas, as well as future steps the schools may take.

The meeting followed a letter, penned by villagers Lori Askeland and Sarah Sinclair-Amend, which was presented at a July school board meeting. The letter asked for clarification about ongoing education for district students with regard to “relationships, sexuality, bodies and gender.” It also referenced the district’s 2018 commitment to shoring up education around sex and consent following community concern over the district’s response to allegations of sexual misconduct by a YS High School student.

At the work session, McKinney Middle and YS High School Assistant Principal Joy Feola and Counselor Shannon Morano gave a presentation on the schools’ coverage of sex education.

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Feola began by pointing out that Ohio does not have sex education curriculum standards determined by the State Board of Education; instead, the required curriculum is codified into the Ohio Revised Code, or ORC. According to Chapter 3313.6011 of the ORC, by law, all Ohio districts must “emphasize that abstinence from sexual activity is the only protection that is 100% effective.”

The same law requires Ohio curricula for sex education to recommend that students “abstain from sexual activity until after marriage,” stress that “conceiving children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences” and to “emphasize adoption as an option for unintended pregnancies.” It also forbids the Ohio Board of Education from adopting “a separate model education program for health education.”

The ORC also requires health education to address nutrition; alcohol, tobacco and opioid abuse; relationship violence; personal safety and assault prevention; diseases and infections spread through sex; suicide awareness and prevention; and social inclusion.

Morano, who provided sex education for Southwest Ohio school districts for 17 years through Planned Parenthood before joining the McKinney and YS High School staff, cited a 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System report, which found that 26.5% of Ohio students are sexually active. More than half, she said, do not use any form of barrier, hormonal or intrauterine contraception.

“When we don’t tell [students] what is available out there for them, it can have a really substantial outcome on their lives,” Morano said. “We want them to have all the tools in the toolbox.”

To that end, Feola added, YS Schools have implemented additional instruction in sexuality education — which includes and builds upon the elements of sex education to address sexual and reproductive health, relationships, gender roles and identities and other societal and cultural topics — in tandem with the state-mandated curriculum for middle and high school students. That additional instruction follows national sexuality and health education standards, and all of it must be reviewed and approved by the state.

Health education for K–6 students as mandated by the state is focused on nutrition, drug and alcohol awareness and personal safety and assault prevention, which are taught in physical education classes and by Counselor John Gudgel. But Morano said that young students’ sexuality education at Mills Lawn begins by learning about basic anatomy — head, hands, arms, legs, feet — and by encouraging students to set boundaries concerning their own bodies, and to respect the boundaries of others.

At McKinney and YS High School, educators use the “Making Proud Choices!” curriculum and employ guest speakers from the Family Violence Prevention Center to teach students about the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, healthy relationships, the warning signs of abusive relationships, making informed decisions and maintaining boundaries.

And students are also educated about birth control options, including abstinence — “Because that is a very good birth control option, while you’re using it,” Morano said.

Sexual consent is also an important part of the schools’ curriculum, according to Morano — particularly when it comes to denying consent.

“Sometimes [students] want to say ‘no,’ but they don’t know what to say — so we give them the language and allow them to practice,” she said.

Morano said that the schools’ added instruction also encompasses inclusive language and intersectionality and making sure the language educators use is “relevant to everyone.”

Feola added that, while parents and guardians can choose to opt-out of having their children participate in state-mandated instruction, they must sign a form to opt-in to the additional instruction.

Looking ahead, Morano said the district aims to involve parents and guardians more directly in sexuality education by holding parent nights to allow questions and concerns to be addressed in-person by educators. She said she also hopes to add a “resource bank” of information for parents and guardians to access via the district’s website.

“Because parents are kids’ first and most important sex educators,” she said.

At the completion of the presentation, school board member Judith Hempfling asked how students report issues of sexual violence, assault or other nonconsensual contact, and how the district responds to those reports.

Feola said the middle and high schools have implemented the use of an app called “Stay Safe. Speak Up!” which allows students to report violence, self-harm and sexual assault, among other issues, via mobile devices. District officials and educators are alerted immediately when a student makes a report. The app, she said, has been well-used by the student population.

“From a principal’s perspective, I get way more reports [in Yellow Springs Schools] than I have gotten [in other districts],” Feola said.

As mandated reporters, Morano said, all staff must relay anything reported by a student, through the app or in person, that constitutes abuse or endangerment of a child to law enforcement and the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

“We are not the investigators” of those types of reports, she said, and added that the schools sometimes involve YS Police Department Community Outreach Specialist Florence Randolph if they think a report will cause trouble for a student at home.

Sarah Sinclair-Amend, who was present for the work session, referred to the letter she co-authored with Lori Askeland, and the concerns that spurred its writing in the first place — particularly the assaults of female students that came to light in 2018, which she said were “[not] reported for long periods of time.”

“There was definitely a culture that did not make them feel safe reporting,” she said. “And while it sounds like you’re doing a lot with the curriculum, I really feel it would be important to do something like the Antioch [Sexual Offense Prevention Policy, or SOPP] from kindergarten on. … Without a common language, [students are] not going to be able to implement [boundaries] later on.”

Superintendent Terri Holden, who was not in the district at the time of the sexual misconduct to which Sinclair-Amend referred, said it would be “inappropriate” to speak to anything that happened before her time, but agreed that education around bodily autonomy and personal boundaries should — and does at YS Schools, she said — begin as early as kindergarten.
However, she said: “There clearly is a part for K–6, but … Antioch is an institution for adults. I have children here. Children cannot give [sexual] consent.”

Sinclair-Amend clarified that she believes continuous age-appropriate, SOPP-like discussion around affirmative consent for touch of any kind — even touch often considered innocuous, like hugs — is needed for young students; she cited instances in which children known to her have reported being hugged or kissed by other students without consent in class and on the playground.

“If [bodily autonomy] is something they’re taught one time and not continuously, it might not make it into their general knowledge,” she said.

Feola responded that the frequency with which students in the middle and high schools report violations of personal boundaries, to her mind, shows that there is a deep understanding of consent by students.

“When it’s something as simple as, ‘They touched my shoulder and I didn’t like that,’ it lets me know that something is sticking,” Feola said.

When asked by Hempfling what resources the schools are able to provide to students in the wake of the dissolution of Roe v. Wade, Morano said that question is still up in the air for educators.

“There will most likely be difficulties in educators providing abortion information or resources to students,” Morano added. “We don’t even know how hard it’s going to be yet.”

The school board will hold its next work session, which will be focused on strategic planning, on Monday, Oct. 24, beginning at 7 p.m. To watch the Sept. 19 work session in full, go to youtu.be/nbzdzoGFfr0.

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