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How community members are aiming to reform East Lansing sex education

January 31, 2023
Photo by Madison Echlin | The State News

Sex education is often the hallmark of secondary school – but how this looks can vary greatly between school districts

For some, sex education is a strict discussion on the importance of abstinence. For others, it's a more comprehensive overview of ways to prevent STDs and maintain reproductive health.

East Lansing Public Schools, or ELPS, along with Sex Education Advisory Board, or SEAB, reviews and vets all materials for the classroom. The board comprises parents, healthcare providers, clergy members, education specialists and two high school students. It considers what the community wants in its curriculum and tries to get those requests approved while following all state laws about what can be taught

ELPS district nurse and SEAB supervisor Sara Smith said the high school sex ed curriculum follows the Michigan Model for Healthy and Responsible Relationships, which is provided by the state. As part of these requirements, material must be “age appropriate” and “must not be medically inaccurate," she said. 

“The number one for us is you have to discuss the benefits of abstaining from sex until marriage and the benefits of ceasing sex if a pupil is sexually active,” Smith said. “So that doesn't mean we teach abstinence-only ... it means we do have to say that absence is the only way that you can 100 percent sure that you won't get HIV and AIDS and that sort of thing. So we do have to fall within the confines of that.” 

SEAB co-chair Melissa Fore believes the biggest issue with the current curriculum for sex education is the lack of representation.

Fore has advocated for representation of race, sexual orientation and identity – especially since becoming a professor. Fore is an assistant professor at Michigan State University for writing classes. Here, she speaks about the “politics of identity.” She brings this perspective with her to the SEAB.

“I was always hyper-aware of what representations of African American students look like or if there were students with different abilities or how they portrayed students of color, or if all the graphics were white body parts,” Fore said.

Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health, or MOASH, executive director Taryn Gal said students do not feel like they are represented enough by the sex ed curriculum.

MOASH works to make sure that “young people have access to sexual health services and sexual education,” especially when schools across the state do not require sex education curriculum, except for the requirement for HIV to be taught as a communicable disease, Gal said

Gals said students that come to MOASH generally share a common consensus: the schools do not offer a sex education that is good enough. In Gal’s eyes, a curriculum needs to be “non-shaming, non-stigmatizing and inclusive and affirming.” 

Gal believes that when the curriculum is not representative of all identities, it "sends a message that they’re invisible.” 

Smith said it's been a few years since the Michigan Model for Healthy and Responsible Relationships was updated and it does not use inclusive language. Fore and her advisory board are constantly trying to improve the curriculum for ELPS's eight schools, especially with gender-inclusive and LGBTQ+ terminology and representation

“When we as a board come up with new recommendations for new videos or new curriculum, we have this whole process of looking at it that involves looking at representations whether language is gender neutral,” Fore said

Fore said there has recently been conversation on making a new curriculum on intersex and a push to examine how race is represented in the material

According to Gal, all of the work at MOASH is informed by young people, which includes multiple youth advisory councils. The councils focus on different identities and topic areas. She said they like to hear feedback from young people about what they should be working on, to make sure that adolescents are receiving the most important and relevant information.

One of these relevant topics is been Roe v. Wade, Gal said. Recently, students are coming to MOASH to learn more about safe abortions, access and rights they have, since the law limits what can be taught in a classroom, Gal said.

“We are prohibited from discussing abortion as a method of family planning and it can't be taught as a method of reproductive health,” Smith said. “That's again under the state laws in Michigan.”

Despite this, Smith said they still teach about contraceptives such as condoms and the board does the best it can with what's permitted

“We do know that young people want to know information about their rights to access and abortion care, so we are doing more in terms of raising awareness outside of schools,” Gal said. “(We want) to advance access to adolescent sexual health and information and resources for young people.” 

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In the future, Gal hopes MOASH is able to form more positive relationships with school districts She wants more people to share their opinions – especially parents who want quality sex education in their children's schools.

Gal wants people to "raise their voice" in supporting "best practice sex ed." 

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