By Caitlin Taylor
The Mason Times
On April 1, the Guttmacher Institute issued a State Policies in Brief regarding sex and HIV education, as it corresponds with each individual state; Michigan’s classifications are comparable to the sex and HIV curriculum at Mason Public Schools.
The brief explains that in Michigan, there is no state-mandated sex and HIV education program, though when sex and HIV are taught, abstinence is generally stressed and negative implications of teen pregnancies are usually covered.
“In Michigan, schools are required to either be ‘abstinence only’ – contraceptives may not be taught, or ‘abstinence based’ – contraceptives may be taught,” said Deborah Schafer, a teacher at Mason High School who serves on the Sex Education Advisory Board. “Mason is an abstinence based district, which is the least restrictive of the options.
Despite Mason’s abstinence-based program, all forms of contraception, other than abstinence, are offered later in elective courses. In other words, it is mandatory for freshman students to take a trimester of sex education that covers only abstinence. At this level, Mason’s curriculum aligns with Michigan’s program classification in the State Policies in Brief. It expands only if students choose to take the electives during their sophomore, junior or senior year.
Matt Stuard, interim director of curriculum, said that these course offerings are all made by a reproductive health council of faculty, administration and staff members, with all program content approved by the Board of Education.
According to Schafer, the curriculum is good, but becomes excellent only if the elective courses are taken, as they provide a broader scope of information.
Beyond abstinence, the curriculum includes content about anatomy and physiology, pregnancy and reproduction, sexually transmitted infections and HIV, and healthy relationships and personal safety. Abstinence is then used as an aid, not only in teaching about pregnancy and STI/HIV prevention, but in helping students process their personal limits and develop refusal skills, Schafer said.
“We are also required by state law to inform students of the Safe Delivery Law, underage sex, and the Sex Offender Registry,” she said.
In comparison, Holli Crowley, health and physical education teacher at Mason Middle School, said that due to a decision made by the Sex Education Advisory Board, contraceptives are not discussed in middle school whatsoever. Instead, the bulk of the middle school program includes content about reproductive anatomy.
“Sixth grade sex education at MMS consists of puberty basics. Male students are taught male reproductive anatomy and female students are taught female only,” Crowley said. “In seventh grade, students are taught both male and female reproductive anatomy and given more information about puberty awareness. Females are taught how to complete a self-breast exam; male students are taught how to complete a self-testicular exam. In eighth grade, sex education covers the same topics mentioned in seventh grade with more information.”
HIV and STI education, on the other hand, is taught within the middle school curriculum, but only during seventh and eighth grade.
Another aspect of sex and HIV education included in the State Policies in Brief discusses each state’s social inclusiveness throughout the curriculum. With that said, Michigan was classified as a state where being age appropriate is stressed, but being culturally appropriate and unbiased is not a legal requirement. Similarly, Michigan law says the curriculum cannot promote religion, and sexual orientation is not in the curriculum content.
Schafer says that there are no specific value judgments presented in the Mason High School curriculum – only facts.
“We answer all questions with facts only and never use personal beliefs or value judgments,” she said. “Our goal is to make sure all students feel safe to ask questions and get the information they need. Religious components may be asked about by a student, but we answer with facts only and may refer them to another source for information like a guidance counselor, family, physician or clergy, if they need it.”
Other student resources are listed in the Mason High School student handbook. It includes the Ingham County Health Department, Planned Parenthood and Willow Plaza Teen Health Clinic, among others, according to Schafer.
Similarly, Crowley said that all personal stories, from both instructors and students, should be completely left out, unless necessary for education. As a teacher, Crowley said religious components have not been brought up before, but she occasionally receives questions regarding same-sex orientation as it pertains to reproduction.
It is common for middle and high school instructors to communicate with parents about the course material.
“As required by law, parents are given written notice in advance of the sex and HIV education instruction, and they are allowed to remove their student from instruction, preview the materials, and/or observe the instruction,” Schafer said. “I would estimate that the percentage of parents who exercise these rights is less than 5 percent. Previewing materials is the most prevalent right exercised; removing a student from instruction is typically one to three students per year district-wide.”
According to both Schafer and Crowley, all sex and HIV education instruction is done in a safe environment for students, a reason parents may feel at ease with the Mason curriculum.
“In my classroom, I begin each sex education unit by explaining that the class is a safe, non-judgmental environment,” Crowley said. “I allow students to submit anonymous questions and comments in a question box throughout the unit.”
According to Jason Nichols, Mason High School alumnus, instructors desired a safe place throughout the curriculum program.
“In the first three weeks, we did nothing but play games to get more comfortable with each other because of the content of the class,” he said.
Schafer says that, above all, the Mason curriculum is developmentally appropriate. She says that because of her work, she is comfortable with her approach to sex education and believes that her children will learn a lot about sexual development and HIV prior to their school programs.
“The program is very progressive,” Nichols said. “I liked the way Mason Public Schools approached sex ed.”
Superintendent Ronald Drzewicki did not wish to comment.
In the end, Mason’s approach to sex and HIV education curriculum is not uncommon, especially within Michigan, according to the Guttmacher Institute’s State Policies in Brief. While Mason Public Schools is considerably abstinence based, many of the district’s content requirements line up with the state’s which do not particularly stand out, either.
“Michigan and the Midwest are not unusual for their general and content requirements,” said Rebecca Wind, senior communications associate at Guttmacher Institute. “The South tends to be the only major outlier as far as most restrictive policy and highest teen pregnancy rates.”