Sex ed is a struggle in the pandemic. Montclair teens, groups looked to fill the gaps
By TALIA WIENER
Sex education in Montclair schools, like all aspects of the curriculum, saw instructional hours cut back during a year of mostly remote learning.
Small-group instructions and hands-on activities were eliminated, Patrick Scarpello, the district’s supervisor of physical education and health, said.
But Montclair High School students and community sex educators have worked to fill gaps left by the changes to the health education lessons, while also combatting the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.
Senior Milena Testa said what she described as problems with sex education at MHS have only become more pronounced during remote learning. Instead of sitting in a classroom, students are now able to turn off their cameras or walk away from their computers at any point during class, Testa said.
She said sexual abuse is a difficult enough topic to address even under the best of circumstances.
“If there's any way to reach people who are unaware of the realities, it's through unraveling some sort of emotion, and then you make them connect with a survivor,” Testa said. “That's a lot harder virtually.”
At the beginning of quarantine, Testa organized a discussion on Zoom for survivors of sexual assault to share their stories. Soon after, she created Me, Myself and I, a club dedicated to empowering sexual assault survivors and educating allies. One of Testa’s main goals is to get male high school students involved in conversations around sexual assault, though she said her club has had difficulty doing so.
Testa said Montclair’s remote sex education has repeated the same concept that she and her classmates have been hearing for years — no means no. She said she is upset the conversation has not developed further.
“They tell us if a girl is uncomfortable, stop,” Testa said. “But how is she uncomfortable? You need to get specific with these things, so people can see these examples of ways that this happens. And then when they're in that position in real life, people recognize what it is.”
Scarpello hasn’t yet returned a message seeking a response to Testa’s criticisms of the school system’s sex education lessons.
Throughout the year, Me, Myself, and I has held events hoping to create spaces for further conversation regarding sexuality, trauma and self-reflection. The group has watched movies, such as one on the suffragette movement, held a photoshoot for members, and had self-care nights where members created art and journaled.
Lessons beyond the schools
For Our Whole Lives (OWL), a comprehensive lifespan sexuality education curricula offered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair, presenting lessons independent of the district’s own sex education program is nothing new. The program has been educating Montclair youth on sex education for decades, and currently offers classes for three levels — kindergarten and first grade, fourth and fifth grade, and eighth grade. OWL focuses on themes of self worth, sexual health, responsibility, justice and inclusivity, coordinator Jennifer Bell said.
But the coronavirus pandemic delayed the start of lessons from January to March, and classes were made remote or moved outside. Bell also worked with facilitator Larissa Brookes and others to condense 10 sessions into five.
Some activities and lessons were eliminated from the curriculum and some were combined, Bell said. A workshop called Bullying and Bystander Responsibilities was cut. Other workshops — Pregnancy, Parenting, and Teenage Parenting, and Unintended Pregnancy Options — were combined into one slightly longer class meeting.
The OWL program relies on confidentiality, communication and being able to clearly see students’ reactions to material presented, so masks and social distancing have created a big challenge, Bell said.
“We have had to be extra careful about how we present information that might trigger reactions to traumas any students might have experienced, and we've had to ask for more feedback on whether or not they are understanding the information we are presenting,” Bell said. “Frankly, masks hinder trust-building.”
The program typically has a “Question Box” — where students can anonymously leave questions to be answered at the next lesson. That was put on hold as well, Brookes said.
“We want the kids to feel comfortable so that they can be open and honest,” Brookes said. “And sometimes there's just isn't too much privacy during these Zoom meetings, especially if there are younger kids around. It can be really inhibiting.”
Brookes, who has three children that have gone through all or part of the OWL program, said the district separated students by gender to talk about puberty in fifth grade. OWL keeps all students grouped together by age and makes an intentional effort to openly discuss all topics, Brookes said.
“We don’t divide the kids by gender,” Brookes said. “Everyone learns together about menstruation, pregnancy, wet dreams, etc.”
The OWL program will break for the summer and organizers hope to return to in-person meetings without masks in September. The fall will offer an opportunity to finish up lessons and fill any holes left after the abbreviated year of learning, according to Bell.
OWL is normally open to members of the congregation and community, but during the past year the program has only been open to congregants, Bell said. For non-members, the cost of the course is around $100.
Benefits of early education
A January 2020 Montclair State University study titled “Three Decades of Research: The Case for Comprehensive Sex Education” identified the positive outcomes of comprehensive sex education started as early as kindergarten — healthier relationships, prevention of child sex abuse and intimate partner violence and improvement to school environments for LGBTQ students. The study was co-authored by MSU public health professors Eva Goldfarb and Lisa Lieberman.
“We found that sex education that begins in the early grades, is developmentally and age-appropriate, and built from one year to the next leads to outcomes that all parents want for their children,” Goldfarb said.
Goldfarb and Lieberman wanted their study to look past the most commonly recognized outcomes of sex education — disease control and pregancy prevention — in order to better understand other social and emotional outcomes.
Goldfarb, whose three children attended Montclair public schools, is also the co-author of “Advocates for Youth: Rights, Respect and Responsibility,” a K-12 comprehensive sex education curriculum first adopted by the district during the 2017-2018 school year. She also co-authored the OWL curriculum.
Goldfarb has been working with the district on sex education for more than 25 years, conducting periodic professional development in the district and holding workshops for parents on raising sexually healthy children. She has taught lessons about puberty at Charles H. Bullock School, Hillside School and Watchung School.
After the adoption of the Rights, Respect and Responsibility curriculum, Goldfrab was hired through a grant with Working to Institutionalize Sex Ed to run professional development trainings for school nurses, elementary, middle and high school teachers in the district.
The implementation of the curriculum was gradual, Goldfarb said, but the district was “making great strides” and working hard to address homophobia and other LGBTQ issues in schools. Goldfarb’s last session with the district was in early 2020.
New Jersey has sex education learning standards for kindergarten through 12th grade and recently became only the second state in the country to require that all schools teach about the contributions of LGBTQ individuals. But that does not mean every school is offering a perfect sex education program to its students, Goldfarb said.
“If you look on paper, New Jersey is one of the most supportive states for comprehensive sex education,” Goldfarb said. “But the actual control of what goes on in school districts is at the local level.”
At a May 5 Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds announced a possible collaboration with filmmaker Adam Joel to enhance the district’s health curriculum. Joel’s upcoming 30-minute science-fiction film, “The Last Drop,” documents a couple reliving shared memories of relationship abuse and hopes to foster open conversation among students about intimate partner violence.
“We really want to focus on the subtler forms of abuse that are harder to notice,” Joel said at the meeting.
Joel is now working on discussion guides and professional development to use alongside the film.