Sexuality and U
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Teachers

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Managing Controversy

 

As you read about these tips and strategies, don’t forget the basics of maintaining good communications with your parents, community, outside agencies and the media

1. Understand different perspectives

Try to understand all different perspectives, avoid labels as much as you can and debunk myths and misleading terms or loaded words. Here are some perspectives that may arise in your school/community.

Schools should teach the three R’s

Debate about sexual health education may be caused by differences in opinion about the role of schools in promoting health or social development. Some people believe that schools should only focus academics and will not be supportive of sexual health education.

Suggested arguments/strategies for this situation:

A good argument to use here is simply that schools are required to teach about sexual health education according to the curriculum. Another good argument is that good health contributes to learning. Ask the individuals to consider the academic consequences of unplanned pregnancy on students.

Different approaches to Sexual Health education

There are several approaches that educators and others have used to educate young people about sexuality

  • Family life education: places emphasis on preparing children for family life and reproduction, often situated within a program on other aspects of family studies, home economics
  • Population education: emphasizes sociological, environmental and economic consequences of population growth
  • Science education: emphasizes biology aspects, delivered in science curricula 
  • Medical/disease education: emphasizes avoiding disease, risk and medical information
  • Fear-based approach: emphasizes the risks of STI/HIV and offers simplistic behavioural messages
  • Abstinence-based education: focuses on abstinence as primary message and does not provide much coverage to contraception, condoms, safer-sex and STIs/HIV
  • Abstinence-only education: focuses only on abstinence and does not discuss contraception, or safer sex
  • Sexuality education: places more emphasis on the individual, sexual activity, sexology, biology and behaviour, presents sexuality as a key part of life and includes message that sexuality and sex are pleasurable
  • Comprehensive (holistic) sexual health education: covers anatomy, physiology, contraception, safer sex, relationships and abstinence
  • Sexual health education within a comprehensive health education program: places sexuality within a holistic health education curricula that can cover certain skills (e.g. media literacy, decision-making, assertiveness, etc.) using other health topics rather than just sexual health
  • Sexual health, health education within the context of a comprehensive school health approach that links education with health services, youth engagement, parental involvement, and other interventions

Suggested arguments/strategies for this situation

Most curricula (i.e. provincial/territorial documents) in Canada could be described as attempts to be “comprehensive” while continuing to emphasize the message that the preferred option is to abstain from intercourse until married or in a long-term relationship. However, in reality, most programs that are delivered in Canadian schools would be a mixture of many of the approaches described above.

By noting that most of these perspectives are valid and actually have some research evidence to support their application, you can defuse the debate and avoid people having to take hard advocacy positions.

Different conceptions of family and the role of parents in Sexual Health education as well as the status and roles of adolescents

Similar to the different perspectives on the role of the school, different perspectives on the role of the family and adolescent development may underlie the positions being taken on sexual health education. Culture, religion, individual beliefs and experiences are all related to this.

Suggested arguments/strategies for this situation

The school is a public institution mandated to be responsive to the needs of all students and their parents. Although sexual health or HIV/AIDS education is currently required in all Canadian provinces/territories, the specific approach and treatment of issues will vary considerably. Be careful to not position the sexual health education as including values or values that all students have to be taught. Rather, position the program as having to present information, knowledge and skills that respond to a variety of perspectives, and note that parents are the ones that communicate their values and preferred options to their children. The school has no right to be promoting certain values or behavioural options for adolescents. In other words, it is the obligation of the school to respect the diversity of parental wishes. By doing this, no parent or group of parents has the right to ask the school to exclude different aspects. At this point, the parent’s right to have their children opt out of certain classes becomes the safety valve for some parents.

The Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education includes these statements about how values and choices should be treated in effective programs:

Effective sexual health education provides knowledge, information and skills within the context of the individual’s moral beliefs, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious backgrounds and other such characteristics
 
Effective sexual health education provides opportunities for individuals to explore the attitudes, feelings, values and customs that may influence their choices about sexual health. The goal is to encourage positive sexual health outcomes and to increase individual awareness of the social support available for such behaviour.

2. Understand your biases and perspectives

In discussing sexual health or similar topics, any perceived bias on the part of the educators or school will cause a problem. Be careful to ensure that all perspectives are respected in discussions.

3. Address myths, misconceptions and misinformation

Discussions about sexual health education and school-based programs are often made more difficult by a number of myths, misconceptions and misinformation about sexual health and educational programs.

We have prepared a fact sheet and this can be found in the resource section of the website.

4. Seek to understand the criticism and opponents

It is important that school sexual health educators form connections, partnerships and ongoing communications with a wide variety of individuals and organizations in their communities. These include parents, the local public health department, clergy from various faiths, business leaders, sexuality and HIV groups, local physicians and others. Make those approaches as early and as often as you can as you implement your program.

However, think carefully about your approach to each of these groups and individuals. Before you set up a call or a meeting with people, ask yourself about the:

  • potential benefits of having them aware or involved in your program (for your program but also for them)
  • potential risks in having them more aware or involved in your program (for your program, for them and for others   who might react to their involvement)
  • practical investments of their time, reputation and expertise in your program that you might be asking them to make
  • The Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention has published a guide on how to approach faith communities and their leaders. This is the type of preparation and thinking that should be done for all groups that you want o involve.

Build support in your school community for your program by:

  • informing parents each year about the goals and nature of the program
  • briefing parent leaders each year through presentations to the Parents Committee
  • meeting regularly with public health staff
  • inviting local physicians and health clinic staff to advise you on your program or having them make presentations to parents meetings
  • focusing on the majority of people in the community who are already supportive of sexual health education, rather then trying to persuade those that oppose such education to accept it.
 5. Choose your allies carefully

Identify the journalists from the local newspapers, radio, television stations and community web sites that show  an interest in health issues or that cover school board and health authority meetings. Monitor their stories and send them helpful information in response to those stories. (This information does not have to be about your sexual health program or your school. Just try to be come a resource to them as they write stories about health and schools.)

You should position yourself as the local health educator, not only on sexual health but on all sorts of health issues. Coordinate these contacts with the communications person in your school board

Help the journalists to identify other people in the community that can comment on health and youth issues. Again, be a helpful resource to the journalists.

Depending on the topic and the local situation, you could consider writing “Op Ed” pieces or Letters to the Editor about health issues for the local newspaper. Be careful to present your views on these topics in a constructive manner. This will help to establish your credibility as a local health education expert.

Both this relationship building work with the media and your outreach to involve and inform the community about your sexual health program will be a reservoir of support for you to call upon if you are faced with a criticism or controversy.

6. Build a relationship with the media (on Sexual Health and other health issues)

The first response to criticism should be to listen carefully to their concern or point of view. Without denying their right to hold that view, and without belittling your opponents for lack of information or expertise, you can   try to determine if their opposition is based on any of the causes listed below. If they are, you can try some of the preventive and response tactics suggested in the right hand column:

  

Reasons for Opposing Sex Education Possible Active or Reactive Strategies
Lack of knowledge about your program goals and how they will be implemented
  • Send information out to parents each year
  • Inform parent leaders each year
  • Bring written information about your program school board policies and ministry curricula requirements to meetings and discussions/debates
Fear that discussions of sex will distress or offend youth
  • Point out that comprehensive sexual health education programs address sex within the context of sexual health. It is not just about sexual activities. It is about relationships, overall health, responsibility towards others, etc
  • Also point out that most youth are more interested in the relationship aspects that the physical aspects
  • Point out that the program takes a factual, honest approach to presenting information without getting into which decisions are best.
  • Point out that your program has set ground rules for discussions that protect privacy, use proper words, avoid personalization and have opt-out procedures for asking questions anonymously or by going to selected web sites
Belief that talking about sex encourages sexual activity
  • Bring authoritative reports on studies that show that sex education does not increase sexual experimentation. Also, be honest and point out that sex education delays experimentation only by a few months but does have some influence the nature of the relationships, condom use, number of sexual partners etc.
A worry that sexual health education conflicts with their religious beliefs
  • Point out that most school systems allow parents to exclude their children from sex education classes. Bring copies of that procedure to any meetings discussing your program. This opting out could be for only selected classes that address issues that are of most concern to parents.
Opposition to sexual health education may be part of a larger concern or view about schooling that seeks to exclude topics or subjects from the school curriculum.
  • Bring studies showing that the vast majority of parents support sex education, that all provinces and territories require a form of sex education, that research shows that sexual health education has several positive benefits not only for the children but for health care costs from diseases such as STI’s and HIV.

 

7. Defuse a debate by taking it personally, or not

The best way to respond to criticism or controversy is to not take it personally.

You should begin by acknowledging from the outset that almost all health and social development education is sensitive because it involves different perspectives and values.

No one really challenges the role of the school that is shared with parents and the community in socializing young   people and preparing them for life. After all, the first schools in Canada for poor and middle class families were founded by churches and charities, and were established to provide guidance to youngsters as well as to prepare them academically.

Sexual health education is part of this social role for schools, but there are other topics such as family life, character education, religious education, bullying, competition vs cooperation, morals and other aspects that are also challenging for a public institution to address.

As well, schools are required to play this role of socialization by virtue of obligatory provincial/territorial curricula, school board directives and so on. Indeed, sexual health or HIV/AIDS education is mandatory in all provinces and territories. So, it is incumbent upon the school to try to respond to as many points of view as possible and to present programs in a balanced and careful manner that clearly respects and supports the role of parents in transmitting their values to their children.

Yet, at the same time, it can be useful to remind people that the teachers in sexual health programs (like you) are real people, trying to do a good job. By making the educators more personable through introductions, by having them present their goals for their students, by asking them to explain the program in their own language. This makes it difficult for opponents of sexual health education programs to make personal attacks, or to criticize “them”.

However, should there be personal attacks in a meeting or discussion, the facilitator or chair should quickly intervene to insist that the discussion focus on the program or specific aspects of the program such as suitable behavioural or values messages, teaching methods or materials etc.

8. Refocusing or reframing debates

If a debate erupts about your sexual health program, consider ways to reframe the debate. For example, instead of arguing that teaching kids about sex is necessary for their healthy development, you could frame the debate as a necessary and obligatory part of the curriculum because of the potential risk of HIV/AIDS.

Or, in another example, instead of arguing that teaching about homosexuality is the “right or wrong” thing to do, the debate can be framed as preventing discrimination, bullying and even potential suicides.