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Pittsburgh school district expands decade-old sex education policy

Julia Zenkevich
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Public Schools has updated its Sexuality Education Policy for the first time in more than a decade. While the revision emphasizes that abstinence is the only protection that is 100% effective against unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, it is no longer listed as the “expected norm."

The previous policy, which was last revised in July 2011, listed abstinence as the expected norm and included language about promoting a wholesome understanding of sexuality. Though the policy defined its approach as comprehensive, it did not mention sexual orientation or gender identity.

The updated policy, which the board approved unanimously during its Wednesday meeting, expands the parameters of sexuality education to include consent, anatomy, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation and identity, sexual health, and interpersonal violence.

The district’s administration calls its curriculum comprehensive, developmentally appropriate, medically accurate, inclusive, anti-racist and culturally responsive.

The policy covers students in kindergarten through graduation. According to the district, the curriculum is taught depending on the developmental level of students. In elementary school, for example, students receive lessons throughout the year during physical education. In early grades, teachers might not discuss sex but rather the basic make-up of bodies and identifying personal space and others’ personal space.

A group of organizations and students working together as the Black Girls Equity Alliance provided significant feedback as the board’s policy committee developed changes. That alliance includes the Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, Planned Parenthood and members of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health. Members supported the policy revisions during the board’s monthly public hearing on Tuesday.

Sydney Etheredge, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, told the board she supported the policy updates as a means to empower students to make informed decisions about their sexual health without shame or stigma.

“Starting these conversations early with responsible educators teaching age-appropriate curriculum helps students develop an understanding and respect for themselves and others before they consider becoming sexually active,” she said. “And if they choose to take that step, they are armed with the knowledge to proceed responsibly and safely by including comprehensive sexual education in schools.”

Etheredge said that western Pennsylvania in recent months has been a leader in “protecting access to sexual and reproductive health care.”

“I see this policy as an extension of these practices and hope we can provide an example for other school districts considering sexual education and health for their students during this critical time,” she said.

Melissa Moore, a counselor and supervisor of the Child and Family Counseling Center at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, told the board that it was important to remove abstinence as the “expected norm” from the policy.

“PAAR believes that abstinence being taught as the expected norm puts a negative connotation on sex and may contribute to survivors of sexual abuse experiencing further shame and guilt, now viewing themselves as bad for having experienced sexual activity,” Moore said.

Ryan Eldridge, the district’s health, physical education and wellness coordinator, said that the district used results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s youth risk survey, which PPS students took in the spring of 2019.

Survey results show that district students are above the national average when it comes to the average age when students become sexually active. During a policy workshop in August, Eldridge told the board that the data led the district to prioritize a robust education in the early grades.

Eldridge says students reported having fewer sexual partners than the state and federal averages.

As always, parents and guardians have the option to opt their students out of sex ed. Students can be pulled from the courses, and parents have the option to teach the curriculum at home.

The policy was immediately implemented following Wednesday’s vote.