As a teenager in Guatemala, I never received information about sexual health or healthy relationships. Our schools did not have nurses or social workers to speak with students about these issues, and I definitely couldn’t count on my parents. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I had a safe space to talk about healthy relationships, gender-identity and sexuality.
Unfortunately, that same dynamic plays out today across the United States—even though students and teachers both want better sex education programs in their schools.
Last fall, I joined a leadership program by Healing to Action, a Chicago-based nonprofit that works to end gender-based violence by building the leadership and collective power of those most impacted by it. The program taught me about important concepts like gender agency and consent. I assumed my four children learned these topics as part of their sexual health education in the United States—but my teenagers who attend Chicago Public Schools (CPS) had never heard of consent or ever had a dialogue in school about healthy relationships.
The CPS Office of Student Health and Wellness promotes a comprehensive sexual education policy that requires two trained instructors and, for students in Kindergarten through 4th grade, at least 300 minutes of instruction per year, and 675 for students in grades 5 through 12. It was clear to me, after talking to my daughters, that their school fell significantly short of these requirements. Sexual health education is not provided in every grade. Those mandated instructors are nowhere to be found.
Many of my fellow Chicago parents share the same frustration. Some confide that they themselves need more information around sexual health in order to understand the curriculum and answer kids’ questions. Others have never even seen the curriculum or have had the opportunity to talk with trained instructors about their children receiving sexual health education. Many don’t even know if there are trained instructors in their schools.
Reform is needed to ensure equitable access to sex education. Healing to Action’s SexEd Works campaign is fighting to ensure that the community has a voice in how sex education is administered, that there’s funding for equal access to sex ed regardless of the zip code and that support exists for parents to understand it and teach kids about healthy relationships at home.
One step in the right direction that the district could take would be to hire more nurses and social workers—a demand being made by the Chicago Teachers Union. Embedding nurses and social workers into the community ensures equitable access to health experts that can talk about consent and healthy relationships with youth who may not have a safe space outside of school to learn about these concepts. While it’s not the only fix to address the current state of sexual education, it’s a start.
After I spoke with my daughters about consent, their lives changed. Being able to say “no” has drastically improved their self-confidence and their ability to form healthy relationships.
Sex education can be a life-saving and-changing form of violence prevention. I want this—not just for my daughters, but for all young people like them. And I’m not alone. Their teachers want this, too, and so do other parents.