Valley Parents: A modern-day sex education

  • Wellness teacher Sarah Lemieux poses for a portrait in her classroom at Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vt., on Jan. 22, 2019. Lemieux has taught sexual education to ninth graders for over eight years. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley news — Joseph Ressler

  • Wellness teacher Sarah Lemieux poses for a portrait in front of the SMART Board in her classroom at Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vt., on Jan. 22, 2019. Lemieux says a major part of her sexual education classes is now interactive. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Joseph Ressler

  • A RealCare Baby charges up in wellness teacher Sarah Lemieux's classroom at Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vt., on Jan. 22, 2019. The realistic dolls teach students childcare by simulating actual crying and recording all activity. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Joseph Ressler

Valley Parents Correspondent
Published: 2/8/2019 11:33:04 AM
Modified: 2/8/2019 11:33:14 AM

Stifled laughter, bumbling teachers and awkward anatomy slides characterized sex education for many of today’s parents. In 2019, with technology readily available and people slightly more comfortable talking about sexuality, has sex education in schools improved?

The answer, it seems, is “it depends.”

“It switched from behind closed doors to an open topic where people can freely discuss topics that are important,” said Bonnie Robinson, the curriculum coordinator at Lebanon High School.

Robinson said the environment in the health classroom at the high school today is much more relaxed than when she was a student and boys and girls were being separated for sex education. That’s in part because students start the year completing a ropes course in health class, which Robinson said helps students build rapport.

“That makes having more difficult conversations easier because there’s a feeling of community within the classroom,” Robinson explained.

‘We’re lucky’

Like most sex-ed programs in the Upper Valley, the Lebanon curriculum delivers a lot of information in a short amount of time. In Lebanon, only sophomores have a sexuality unit, with three weeks to cover everything from dating violence to contraceptives to self-exams. Despite limited time and resources, many area sexuality education programs have lofty goals.

“Ideally, our hope is that all students will have the sexual information that they need to make good choices for themselves,” said Nancie Murphy, director of curriculum at the Mascoma Valley Regional School District. “We want students to consider their partners in any encounter and make sure that whatever is happening is comfortable for both people.”

Sarah Lemieux, the health teacher at Hartford High School, also has three weeks to focus on sexuality, although in Hartford, sex education is taught to freshmen. In addition to covering the basics like sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy prevention, Lemieux said she has added more information about consent and cyber safety to the unit in recent years.

Lemieux spends lots of time reframing information — and misinformation — that teens get online. She also weaves current events into the conversation.

“What they’re exposed to in the media ripples down to what they’re taught,” she said. For example, Christine Hallquist, the first openly transgender candidate to run for governor of Vermont, brought up conversations about gender identity, she said.

Lemieux said that Vermont and New Hampshire have low rates of teen pregnancy in part because schools are permitted to teach teens about contraceptives, rather than having abstinence-only education (although she pointed out that abstinence still is discussed).

“I tell the students, ‘You may not feel like you’re lucky to be in class, but we’re lucky to be in states where we have these conversations,’ ” she said.

Strengthening sex ed programs

One of the challenges to teaching sex education is that there’s little regulation from the states. New Hampshire has few requirements, and although Vermont mandates sexuality education, the details are decided at the local level, said Tom Aloisi, adolescent health program manager in the Vermont Sexual Health & Education Program, part of the Agency of Education. Aloisi has been working on strengthening the curriculum in Vermont.

“Historically, a great teacher does great work, but when they leave, the great program often leaves with them,” he said. “I worked with districts to develop and adopt quality sex ed programming that the curriculum director would have in case a teacher left and a new one was hired.”

In Lebanon, health teacher Emily Kehoe is in her first year, replacing Les Lawrence, who taught the program for more than 20 years. Kehoe said that having a solid curriculum in place helped ease her transition, especially to teaching tricky topics like sex education.

Another way to strengthen sex-ed programs amid teacher turnover is to rely on outside organizations. WISE, a Lebanon-based nonprofit organization that is committed to ending gender-based violence, makes presentations in most Upper Valley schools. Educators from WISE see kids twice each year from kindergarten through eighth grade. During high school, students complete one five-hour course presented by the organization, usually as part of health class.

Teaching healthy relationships

Although WISE does not consider its education to be sexuality education, it is an important part of most sexuality units in the area. Kate Rohdenburg, WISE’s program director, and Chelsea Williams, the organization’s prevention and education manager, said the program helps address dating and relationship violence by building protective factors such as community relationships and a sense of self while mitigating risk factors for gender-based violence (such as isolation).

“We’re setting a good foundation for understanding relationships and how people should treat them,” Williams said.

Under the WISE program, conversations about consent start in kindergarten. Children are taught that everyone has personal space, and that it’s their job to get permission before entering someone else’s personal space.

“Kindergarteners and young kids are able to grasp that easily,” Williams said.

The students practice getting hugs — or listening when their peers don’t want to be touched.

“They practice getting told ‘no,’ hearing that ‘no’ and being OK with it,” she said.

Rohdenburg said that because the conversation starts in kindergarten, kids aren’t confused by the concept of consent as they grow older.

“We’ve been sold this message that it gets really confusing or really complicated, but it’s not,” she said. Students are taught that if they’re not sure whether they have consent, they only need to ask.

“We make it normal that we’re not mind readers,” Rohdenburg said. “Asking is a normal thing to do.”

In light of the #MeToo movement, WISE educators said students have a more in-depth vocabulary for discussing issues of consent and sexism. During middle-school presentations, the educators talk about the idea of rating peers in terms of their physical appearance. This year, for the first time ever, someone in every presentation has identified that as objectification.

“The fact that seventh-graders are coming up with the word ‘objectification’ and recognizing that when you think of someone as an object, not as a person, you don’t care about their feelings — that is amazing,” William said.

This foundation allows educators from WISE to have more thorough conversations with students.

“The conversation is for sure evolving,” Rohdenburg said. “It gets really exciting that we can have more nuanced, deeper and more thoughtful conversations every year.”

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