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Comprehensive Sex Education Proves Effective

When people hear the phrase “comprehensive sex education,” it often elicits uncomfortable feelings, mostly because all people hear is “sex.” It has a reputation for being controversial and there is a wide array of strong opinions on sex education of any kind. One thing is clear, though, and that is that comprehensive sex education is effective.
Beech Brook is no newcomer when it comes to sex education, having been providing these services in schools for more than 50 years.  In line with Beech Brook’s vision of being adaptive, the curriculum has changed over the years to better serve today’s youth. Today, Beech Brook’s Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) program provides modified versions of evidence-based curriculum to more than 10,000 students in grades 5-10 across 12 school districts throughout Cuyahoga County.
The CSE abstinence-based curriculum is age-appropriate, focusing on topics such as goal-setting, decision-making, self-esteem, puberty and healthy relationships. While abstinence is the only 100-percent effective way to prevent pregnancy and STDs, abstinence-only education programs leave out important factual information that teens who do choose to have sex, or who are already having it, need to know in order to be safe and healthy. It also leaves out an entire sector of the population, such as youth who do not aspire to get married or who identify with a sexual orientation that doesn’t fit into the husband and wife scenario. By teaching youth the facts about their bodies, sexual behaviors and relationships, they are better equipped to make healthy decisions as adolescents and adults.
The CSE program fulfills Beech Brook’s mission to advance the well-being and self-sufficiency of youth. National evaluations of the curriculum show that students have less fear about puberty, more knowledge about sex, more confidence in their ability to say “no” and better opinions on delayed sexual activity. Some may argue that anything but an abstinence-based approach will encourage adolescents to have sex sooner, but the opposite is true. Numerous studies have found that abstinence-based CSE programs have shown a decrease in the onset of sexual activity, a decrease in the number of sexual partners, a decrease in the frequency of sexual activity and an increase in the use of contraception. Beech Brook intentionally targets the school districts in Cuyahoga County with the highest levels of teen pregnancies and STDs, and those numbers are starting to lower. Girls are learning self-worth and believe that they are valuable without sex. Young men are learning the aspects of a healthy relationship and how to manage peer pressure.
The results from this program have been phenomenal. For the 2011-2012 school year, students across all districts had significant increase in scores on knowledge-based assessments given before and after the program. Besides the increased knowledge, 94 percent of students reported being highly satisfied with their instructors and how easy it was to understand the material.
Each year Kathleen McHale, director of Beech Brook’s CSE program, reads each and every student survey comment. There is an overwhelming amount of positive feedback. Common threads throughout are the expressed relief that what happens during puberty is normal, more confidence in saying no and higher levels of self-respect.
One student was especially proud to report that she now respected her body for the first time in her life. She had been sexually abused as a child, and had always felt it was her fault and that she did not deserve to be respected. This attitude led her to make careless decisions that resulted in risky sexual behaviors. After she learned about boundaries, sexual abuse and respect, she began to see herself through different eyes. She now understood that she could say “no” to sex and finally started to give herself the respect she deserved.
McHale stresses that “the talk” should not just be one discussion about sex, but an ongoing conversation that starts early and happens often. It is important for young children to know their body parts, feel comfortable with their bodies and know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch. This will set the stage for later conversations about things such as puberty, reproduction and pregnancy. Unfortunately, many parents are not comfortable with or simply do not know about the value of these conversations. While CSE is full of valuable knowledge, it is meant to complement the education and conversation that should be going on at home as a family. Beech Brook understands the importance of parent involvement, which is why a parent education night is part of the CSE program. This gives parents the opportunity to voice concerns, ask questions and receive important information to continue this dialogue at home.
While many districts have not historically welcomed CSE programs with open arms due to the controversial nature, the evidence of their success is hard to deny. Along with the extremely positive outcomes seen in this community and others, the federal government is taking steps to support these programs. Congress has reintroduced the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act, which would mean that comprehensive sex education would receive federal funding for the first time ever, since for the past 15 years they have funded only abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. These are steps in the right direction and will hopefully allow Beech Brook to expand their reach into even more school districts, helping even more youth make healthy decisions that will lead to healthier communities.