I Changed Sex Ed in Schools All Over Chicago!
Originally Published: October 6, 2006
Revised: September 5, 2012
Just a few months ago, the Chicago Board of Education unanimously passed a new comprehensive sex ed policy for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The new policy requires all schools to teach students the real facts about sex, condoms, sexuality and relationships, instead of the half-truths being taught in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.
And I made this happen! Or, at least, I helped make it happen.
The new sex ed policy was the result of years of work by a group of us at the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH). We came together because we’d all had really bad sex ed in our high schools and decided we had to put an end to sex ed programs throughout Chicago that didn’t give teens the facts about sex and sexuality.
How I Became a Sex Ed Activist
I started this fight for comprehensive sex ed when a friend and I organized a feminist club at my school. One day during a meeting, we started talking about abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which tell you to abstain until marriage and include no information on condoms or birth control.
I had transferred from a school where I received bad sex ed to this new school with a great, comprehensive program. And it was so different. When I told them about the lies we were taught as facts (“Condoms are 70% effective”; “HIV can slip through the holes in condoms”), they were shocked. We all wondered what we could do to change this.
So, our feminist club got involved with ICAH. They told us about all of these amazing youth-led projects where youths were trying to change sex ed in their schools with help and guidance from ICAH staff. Some were surveying their school community and finding out that there was overwhelming support for comprehensive sex ed. Others were meeting with their school administrators, and got comprehensive sex ed required in their schools.
But at an activist training ICAH held in August 2005, called Action Out Loud, we all decided we wanted a change in the whole school system, not just in individual schools. To do that, a group of 50 youths (including me!) and ICAH staff rallied outside the CPS offices calling on CPS to improve their sex education.
I remember having to take a breath to stop my voice from shaking from nervousness as we spoke to them about why we needed comprehensive sex education.
Raising Our Voices Until Someone Listens
After a long period of no response from CPS, our group at ICAH had the feeling that CPS wasn’t listening and didn’t really care about improving their sex ed. So, we made them listen! We decided to hold another rally in early December, this time with 100 people outside their offices. That afternoon, we chanted our hearts out, bundled up in layers and layers of scarves, hats and gloves against the freezing cold. We held up signs and distributed cards to people passing by, explaining why we were there.
Before the rally, so many people whose opinions were important to me—my teachers and even my dad—told me that nothing was going to change in CPS, no matter how many rallies we held. It was frustrating to hear them be so pessimistic, and I started to wonder if we were really going to accomplish anything.
But after that rally, CPS began to get the message: We were serious about changing sex ed! That December, CPS granted our group at ICAH a meeting with three CPS administrators. In the first meeting, we were so nervous because we were a group of young people meeting with these adult administrators.
I remember having to take a breath to stop my voice from shaking from nervousness as we spoke to them about why we needed comprehensive sex education. We had no idea if they would agree with the changes we wanted. But fortunately, they did! All three said they completely agreed with us—one even said, “Comprehensive sex ed should be mandated in CPS!”—and wanted to work with us.
Victory, at Last!
And that’s exactly what we did. From December until April, our group from ICAH kept meeting with those three administrators, going over our specific problems with the policy and the curriculum. We feel like they really listened to us and took our concerns into account. They gave us drafts of the new policy, and we told them what we liked and what we didn’t like. One of our concerns was that the policy didn’t specifically mention gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender issues, but we were told that this would be included in the guidelines. After some back and forth, we were all pretty satisfied.
In the months leading up to the Board of Education vote on the new policy, we gathered support from students, parents, teachers, doctors, religious leaders…anyone who supported comprehensive sex ed. We collected petitions and had people e-mail and fax letters. CPS told us they received so many letters of support that they had to turn off their fax machine!
After all of that work, the new policy was passed unanimously on April 26, 2006! In addition to making sure that all students receive the most accurate information, the policy also requires all sex ed teachers to attend training to make sure that they’re all teaching the most complete, up-to-date information. Also, any outside groups that schools bring in to help teach about sexuality must be approved by a CPS review board, which will include a youth member.
Not Over Yet
While this is such a great outcome for us after lots and lots of hard work, it’s not the end! We now need to work with the CPS administrators on the guidelines, which is how we will make sure the policy actually goes into effect. I guess that’s what it’s like when you try to change the world: You’ve always got more to do!
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