Sex Education Standards
The State of Pennsylvania's Health and Sex Education Regulations:
In Pennsylvania, The Department of Education regulates and controls guidelines for required public education standards. Standards are set for many important academic subjects in order to create a knowledgable future generation of citizens who are equipped with the necessary tools to run a 21st century society.
The intent of these standards is to create a baseline and a consistency of understanding for all students across the Keystone State. These standards are created to help ensure that all students are receiving proper and accurate information. Unfortunately, the current academic standards for health, safety, and physical education, specifically regarding sexual education, are failing students, communities, and the future health of our state in its failure to be comprehensive. They lack both specificity and focus on abstinence-centric teaching, which has been debunked by numerous scientific studies for failing to decrease unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infection rates.
Digging into the current guidelines set by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which are accessible via the Pennsylvania State Board of Education Curriculum Regulations (Title 22, Chapter 4), we see vague and outdated mandatory proficiency goals for students. The last update to these guidelines was published in July 18th of 2002—nearly 15 years ago—and it fails to account for over a decade’s worth of new research on adolescent health and sexual behavior.
Similarly, Pennsylvania’s Public School Code of 1949 (P.L.30, No.14), an important piece of governing legislation on public school regulation, fails to lay out specifics with regards to sexual education in public schools. The Pennsylvania Department of Education creates the guidelines above by using the rules and regulations created by the Public School Code of 1949.
Pennsylvania does not have a separate mandate for sexual education. However, regulations laid out within the academic standards for health, safety, and physical education, with regards to adolescent sexual health, only require that students, “[a]nalyze factors that impact growth and development between adolescence and adulthood,” which includes “abstinence” and “STD and HIV prevention”. It is then up to local schools and municipalities to interpret this vague statement to decide the proper materials to be taught on HIV/AIDS/STD prevention and abstinence. As required by Title 22, Chapter 4, students in grade 6, 9, and 12 are expected to cover this “material.”
In many cases, these guidelines are interpreted to include a unit in physical education that covers sexual behavior in a negative, abstinence-based approach. In 2013’s fiscal year, the Title V State Abstinence Education Program provided $1.5 million in funding for abstinence education.
This abstinence-based education has failed to accomplish it’s goal. A federally-funded 2007 study of four “carefully selected abstinence-only education programs” found there is no correlation between enrollment in abstinence programs and a delay in sexual activity, fewer sexual partners, or students abstaining completely from sex. This means that the millions of dollars supporting abstinence-based Pennsylvania programs are being wasted through funding program that is failing to achieve its goal of fostering a more sexually-healthy community.
Taking a deeper look into Pennsylvania’s lackluster sexual education approach, there are areas of deep concern. There are no guidelines specifying education on sexuality, gender, healthy sexual relationships, sexual assault and consent, and further, participation in this education is not required to graduate.
For example, sexual assault and rape are rarely discussed in sex education. Yet, statistics show that one in five women and one in seventy-one men will be raped during the course of their lives. This number is troubling and needs to be addressed with immediacy. While there are no long-term studies on consent education, many believe it can be an effective way at drastically lowering rape statistics. Anything with the potential for lowering rape statistics should be considered for use in Pennsylvania public schools.
Additionally, and more generally, young people are exposed to mainstream ideas of sexuality and sexual behavior without a means to deconstruct and understand them. Turn on the television and see companies using sex to sell their products or walk through Times Square to see the numerous sex-centric billboards. Sex is everywhere from our music, literature, movies, to other multi media platforms. It permeates our society, and students deserve the educational tools to navigate this aspect of humanity. Moreover, our gender expectations are interconnected with the abundance of sexuality embedded in today’s society and is another topic worthy of being addressed.
Apart from these needed topics Pennsylvania should include within its health curriculum, it is important that we ensure resources are accurate and appropriate. The lack of a centralized body of academics or regulatory system is troubling for Pennsylvania students. Without such a system, students may be receiving misleading information through the multitude of false information floating around the internet. Instead of relying on the Pennsylvania Department of Education to set vague guidelines, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly should amend the Public School Code of 1949 (P.L.30, No.14) by requiring public school schools to teach specific material that encompasses the above topics.
If our goal is to create a healthier and more informed community, it is important to create a sexual health system that aligns with contemporary ideas and behaviors surrounding sex. Our outdated guidelines should be more comprehensive and specific to ensure there is consistency across Pennsylvania and that they provide students with the correct tools with dealing human sexuality.
LAST UPDATED 2017