Let’s talk about sex (education): NYC high school students weigh in on what they’re not learning in school

PHOTO: David Moriya for the NYCLU
Marlon Rajan, a New York City high school student who administered surveys with the NYCLU about sex education, speaks at an event.

New York City students say the sex education they get in school is often too little, too late — and, in many cases, doesn’t touch on issues affecting those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. That’s according to two surveys released Tuesday by the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Teen Activist Project and Youth Organizing Institute.

“So many people claim to support LGBTQ rights, but we feel excluded from the curriculum in our own schools,” Marlon Rajan, 16, a student activist who helped with the surveys, said in a statement. “Many of the LGBTQ students at my school don’t know what resources are available to them or who to talk to if they have a problem.”

Each survey included responses from about 300 students from dozens of different high schools.

Half of the students who responded said they learned about sex from their friends, and 11 percent said they had not received information or had no one to ask about sex. More than 80 percent had learned about contraception and sexually transmitted infections in school, but only half said they were taught they have a “right to access confidential health care without involving a parent,” according to the NYCLU.

The survey also found that a majority of students — 88 percent — were not aware their school is required to have someone on staff trained to handle issues of bullying. State law called the Dignity for All Students Act, or DASA, requires all schools to have a coordinator trained to respond to harassment based on race, disability, sexual orientation and more. But only 19 percent of students surveyed knew who their DASA coordinator was — and many schools themselves didn’t know, either, according to the NYCLU.

“One coordinator did not know that they were assigned the role,” the report states.

The NYCLU recommends increased training, informing students about their right to confidential health care and incorporating LGBTQ issues into sex education.

The city Department of Education is making some headway in this realm, recently hiring a “gender equity coordinator.” It also hired its first LGBTQ liaison last year, a position created with funding from the City Council. In response to questioning by Councilman Daniel Dromm at an education committee budget hearing Tuesday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she would consider building ongoing funding for the position into the Department of Education budget.

“Certainly, the success we’ve seen this year … we really want to see that progress go forward,” she said.

The Department also recently expanded its guidelines for how to serve transgender students, in response to a federal rollback of protections.

A proposal to fund training for educators on including LGBTQ issues in the classroom was originally included on Wednesday’s agenda for the Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide body. But it was pulled after “the original proposed vendor didn’t work out,” according to a Department of Education spokesman. A new vendor is expected, he added.

“We’re dedicated to providing every student, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, with a high-quality education in a safe, supportive and inclusive learning environment,” Toya Holness, a Department of Education spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “As part of this commitment, we require comprehensive health education, which includes topics on sexual health in middle and high school.”

'A Significant Change'

Done doing ‘more with less,’ Brighton district will move to a four-day school week

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
Students in Alicia Marquez's 6th grade science class at Overland Trail Middle School in Brighton watch a video and work on home work in August 2017. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Students in the Brighton school district will attend school just four days a week starting next school year.

Officials with the fast-growing district north of Denver announced they were considering the change earlier this year after voters turned down a request in November for more local taxes, the latest in a string of defeats for District 27J. This week, they made it official.

There are already 87 school districts in Colorado that use a four-day week at all their schools, but until recently, the phenomenon was largely limited to rural districts. Brighton will be the largest school district in the state on a four-day week

In response to the concerns of working parents, the district will offer paid child care for elementary-aged children every Monday, when school is closed, officials said. Teachers will work some Mondays on planning and professional development.

The change is expected to save the district about $1 million a year, but Brighton Superintendent Chris Fiedler previously told Chalkbeat that the biggest benefit will be “to attract and retain teachers” in a district whose salaries are among the lowest in the metro area.

“I realize this will be a significant change for our students, their families, and the communities we are so fortunate to serve, but our district can no longer be expected to do more with less financial resources,” Fiedler said in a press release.

A mill levy override, a type of property tax increase, hasn’t been approved in District 27J since 2000. A 16th request for more revenue failed in November.

“We are 100 percent committed to providing our students with the necessary skills and competencies that will enable a future far beyond graduation,” Fiedler said. “To that end, I believe it is in our students’ best interest to provide high-quality, engaged teachers using 21st Century tools for learning four days a week rather than not have them five days a week.”

Local union president Kathey Ruybal told Chalkbeat that teachers showed “overwhelming support” for the change.


‘Everything is different now’: Stoneman Douglas librarian reflects one month after shooting

Stoneman Douglas media specialist Diana Haneski, center, at the school's walk-out event.

One month ago, Diana Haneski was hiding in an equipment closet at Stoneman Douglas High School. She’s the school’s media specialist, and when the lockdown was announced she herded students into the closet, where she texted family members and waited, listening to the sounds of helicopters overhead.

Seventeen people were killed in the shooting that day at her Parkland, Florida, school. In the days that followed, some of Haneski’s students reignited a national movement against gun violence. Students returned to Douglas two and a half weeks ago, and that library is now a counseling hub for traumatized students and teachers.

You might know Haneski’s name because of this chilling story about her longtime friendship with Yvonne Cech, who was the librarian at Sandy Hook Elementary School when 26 were killed there. I reached out to Haneski because I know her — she became close friends with my mother when they worked together at Westglades Middle School, which is next door to Stoneman Douglas.

I wanted to know how she was adjusting to the wrenching changes to her work and her community, and what learning looks like now at her school. Here’s some of our conversation.

There’s such a huge wave of news coverage when something like this happens, and we hear less as people who work with students settle back in to their routines and people have returned to those same spaces. I was hoping we could talk about how you’re thinking about your library, and how you’re thinking about the job that you do every day after something like this.

Everything is different now. The library, half of it is counseling. Everyone needs some help still.

The first few days back there were so many people from the district. I mean, anyone that had a teaching certificate who worked for the district that wasn’t in a classroom, they were asked to come to our school and support us. Anyone who wanted help from someone certified in what they teach could have had someone at their side that first week.

And really, they were not trying to really teach anything. They were trying to heal and help. There was no big push to teach. Now, there are kids who really want to learn and want to have regular classes. There are also kids who are just not ready to learn yet. And there are teachers who are having trouble with what they’re supposed to do as well.

So there’s counseling going on to help with all of this. That’s really the number one thing going on in the library. In addition to all these kids coming in the library, there are therapy dogs. As soon as I realized how important dogs were, I was asking the superintendent, asking everyone, can I have a dog in the library, please, for this week and next week?

Now there are two or three in the library. The kids just want to sit there and pet them — it relaxes them, it gets them in a position where they can maybe start talking to a counselor. It’s helps the counselor get the kids to start talking. I’ve seen it work.

It’s unbelievable to see the things coming our way from around the country and around the world, from schools and from random people. I get handwritten notes from people I don’t know who just want to write to me and say how bad they feel and want to send their love and support.

In general, kids still need to talk. Fourth period is when this horrible thing happened to us. We’ve had two fourth periods since we’ve had full days. And they’re hard. You end up with more kids in the library. They just want to hang, and be really close to each other, and to talk.

What was it like after the walkouts on Wednesday?

It was really great. A lot of people went to the football field. Some kids felt compelled to walk to where the memorials are, north of our school. And then some of them came back. That caused a little bit of mayhem, kids leaving and coming back. But they want to be part of something.

They ended it with the song the kids wrote. It was really moving. And as we were out there on the field, we see the Westglades [Middle School] kids coming on the other side of our fence. They’re making noise and they’re waving at us. And as we were first coming out onto the field, there were people from the community on the other side of the fence waving at us and supporting us. So that was kind of nice. And then we ended it with a group hug.

As I came back in, the classrooms were very empty. Then I passed the front office and saw a crowd of kids trying to come back. This is what it is now. We were taking care of business, making sure kids are doing OK and getting what they need.

What’s surprised you about everything that’s happened since the shooting?  

The whole controversy with, should a teacher have a gun. The fact that you can actually have a conversation with someone and they could be like, well, of course they should have one. I mean, I don’t know if I should say this, but I looked for my keys and my phone yesterday for a little longer than I want to admit to. For me to be responsible for a gun? I went to school to be a librarian, media specialist, teacher.

Here’s what’s surprising me. That this could happen — and our kids are being vocal, and sound very logical, and I’m very proud of them — and they go up to Tallahassee with this optimism and enthusiasm, and they think that they’re going to get their voices heard because the legislature is in session. And they get there, and it’s like a slap in the face.

How can it be so hard to say, you shouldn’t sell an AR-15 to an 18-year-old? Why is that so hard? The realization of the power of the NRA, that has surprised me. I didn’t really pay attention to that before.

My life is really different now. No one wants to be a part of that club, surviving a mass shooting. And I’m also an activist. I didn’t really think about myself as an activist. I did learn from my father, rest in peace. He was in politics, and I learned from watching him and helping him. And I learned that you’re supposed to talk when you can make a change.

And knowing that if we’re quiet, it’s just going to go away. Really, if little children in Sandy Hook getting killed didn’t make much of a change, if 50-odd people in Las Vegas at a concert, if that didn’t make much of a change? We have to do something.

I saw you asked for book recommendations for your students — or maybe teachers? — on Facebook. Have you gotten responses? Is that still on your mind, what they will want or need to read?

Yes, teachers really need more material and different resources than they needed before. We do yoga in the library on Monday afternoons, and I was stretching and I looked up at a shelf and there was this book on display — “The Gun Fighter.” That is not a book I want on display right now!

People have been amazing, especially media specialists. FAME, the association for Florida media specialists, has been so kind to me. They’ve started compiling resources, nonfiction and fiction — anything that might help in this area, so that we can help with coping and healing, and also stories that might be inspiring, show kids going through a struggle or pain or hurt and coming out OK.

I know reading is really important to you. Have you managed to read anything yourself this last month?

The first week I didn’t even want to eat. And I really couldn’t get my head to read, which was very unusual. That took me a while; I think it was two weeks before I could. And I started with listening to a book.

I did that because people have been so nice — media specialists have sent me gifts, sharing an audio book, giving me an Amazon gift card and saying, get the books you need to read. I’m also on the Florida Teens Read committee, which means I have to read a lot of books. I told one of them, I don’t know I’ll be able to read the books I need to, since they’re in the school. So they shared their audio books, and I got lucky — one was “Letters to the Lost,” about writing letters to those who have gone.

So yes, I have read three books in these last two weeks. It’s part of moving forward and living my life. And I know there are 17 that couldn’t, and then their heartbroken families.