Journalist of the Year Portfolio

Are we ready for sex?

*Because of the subject matter, “Damon” will not be identified.


Sex. It's more than science.

With its limited sexual education, is the school preparing us for the future?

Marksmen have sex. 

It happens  — whether it’s a first-time relationship in high school, a one-night stand during college or as husbands planning a family —  Marksmen have sex. 

But are they prepared for it?

We asked current student Damon*, one of those Marksmen who is having sex, if the current sexual education has prepared him for a healthy relationship.

“It hasn’t at all,” he said. “I don’t think I remember anything from fifth grade. I don’t even really remember what we covered. But as far as biology goes, I’m sure we touched on it, but it was more how stuff works more than contraception, how to have safe sex, or what constitutes a healthy relationship. Consent is obviously an issue and something that needs to be addressed very thoroughly.”

So we took the question to Director of Counseling Barbara Van Drie, asking if our current sexual education is sufficient to have healthy relationships, whether they’re heterosexual or homosexual. 

“[Proper sexual education] is understanding human behavior, understanding yourself and understanding this process of relationships,” Van Drie said, “of understanding what is the difference between friendship and a romantic relationship. Understanding how powerful romantic relationships are. Understanding how powerful sexuality is. I don't think we provide education on this topic other than in AP psychology.”

Sex.jpg

Then we asked Scott Gonzalez, interim head of Upper School, the same question. His response? “Oh, absolutely not.”

“I’ve always felt that we miss an opportunity as well to talk about sex education,” Gonzalez said. “When I talk about sex education, it’s not just for pregnancy prevention, but also the kind of STDs and the psychological and physiological welfare of people who are still growing. And if we can talk about drugs and alcohol [with the Freedom From Chemical Dependency organization], we should certainly be able to talk about that.”

Obviously, there’s an issue.

Sex is prevalent in the world we live in. Marksmen have sex — right now in high school, later in life as fathers or whatever the case may be — yet the consensus stands: our sexual education does not prepare students for healthy relationships.

So, why aren’t we learning more? 

Ideally, there would be someone in charge to answer this question. But in reality, there’s no one to go to — “Really, nobody’s in charge of it,” Van Drie said. 

That’s because there is no health or wellness class here. Van Drie says that if anyone were in charge of it, it would be the Middle School and the Science Deparment because of the current education.

As far as required academics go, sexual education gets touched on as it pertains to life sciences and biology: the sixth grade learns human reproduction for two weeks, and freshmen in biology learn about anatomy and STDs.

“Because it is a science course, it's not designed with the objective of giving advice to students on how to handle their own sexuality, relationships or sexual maturation,” Science Department Chair Fletcher Carron said. “But it is intended to give them information and to arm them with an understanding of how human reproduction works.”

And as far as non-required courses, one class of seniors learn contraception in environmental science and another class of seniors learn about human sexuality during a unit in AP psychology, a total of 37 of the 88 seniors in those two classes this year.

“Psychology teaches a lot about relationships as well, but in general in my class, I add more content in terms of gender because this is an all-boys school,” Van Drie, who teaches AP psychology, said. “I add more in terms of relationships because this isn't addressed in a lot of other areas, and I add a lot more about sexuality because we don't have other education."

While Van Drie, among many others, believes the school should improve the current sexual education, there are many roadblocks in the way. For Gonzalez, improving the curriculum is a scheduling issue — the current daily schedule is packed. It’s not a matter of if we should improve the curriculum, it’s a matter of when. 

“There are a number of issues in a complete liberal arts education that we’re not able to address because there’s only so much time,” Gonzalez said. “I know that people are going to protest the fact that I’m bringing up the daily schedule again, but if you look at the daily schedule, it’s very limiting.”

Because of this, students don’t always receive the proper sexual education. Damon believes this leaves students unprepared. 

“If you’re someone who’s in a position about to have sex for the first time,” Damon said, “they will hopefully know the basic stuff, but I don’t think that necessarily resulted from St. Mark’s education. More from just stuff you encounter in the world, which is also kind of dangerous because I think there’s a lot of misinformation.”

But is there any way to incorporate more sexual education into the school’s curriculum?

There have been efforts. In 2010, Van Drie proposed an Upper School class to the Committee for the Academic Programs. This class would meet once or twice week to teach relationships, personal skills and human development. 

She doesn’t believe anyone thought it was a bad idea — the school’s curriculum stays the same because of the rigid daily schedule. But, that limiting factor hasn’t kept all conversation of sex education off-campus (see sidebar)

And recently, the administration has had meetings discussing this issue, and they are currently examining how to incorporate sexual education, along with health and wellness, into our education. 

“Even if we can't do something in the classroom, we can certainly talk with parents about how to have these conversations,” Van Drie said. “Because the research says that the very best person to talk with their sons about sex in terms of who has the best impact, are parents.”

Damon also sees parents as a good source for information, but he also believes the school should play a role in sexual education. 

“Ultimately, your parents know a lot about sex whether you like it or not,” Damon said. “Not that you need to be asking them all kinds of questions about it because that is uncomfortable, but just to have them there as a resource and keep that communication open with them is really healthy and helpful. Where the parents drop off, the school should pick up because it is uncomfortable, a lot of this stuff.” 

For Van Drie, the school could — and should — pick up where both parents and the science curriculum would be limited, covering topics that are better suited for an academic setting. 

“Good sex education, good comprehensive sex education — there are different components,” Van Drie said. “There is education regarding human development, such as reproduction and human physiology, relationships and personal skills, such as values clarification. And then, sexual behaviors, sexual health and society and culture. So to me, all of those components come together in terms of comprehensive sex-ed.”

Through a comprehensive education, Damon believes students could benefit from discussion of issues — like correcting misconceptions of consent. 

“People don’t have an understanding of it [consent] or as good an understanding of it as possible and as they need to have,” Damon said. “Consent is so important, having an awkward conversation with someone before you have sex is a lot better than a rape charge.”

Despite the risks that come with being uneducated — especially regarding sex — the school does not have a health class as a part of its current curriculum. 

Gonzalez thinks the school will have to be creative if they want to change the daily schedule — not necessarily to a “block” schedule — to incorporate more education, sexual or otherwise.

“Sometimes, we just stick to things because it’s more comfortable and easier for us,” Gonzalez said. “I’m not so sure that’s a good enough reason. I’m a proponent for changing the daily schedule. But the question is, how do we split that time out and redistribute it?”

But ultimately, Van Drie thinks sexual education is just like any education — it should prepare students for life.

“You spend all of this time and resource on an academic education at St. Mark's, so that your sons can have a good life,” she said. “But in the long run of life, what gives his life more meaning? His career or his relationships? Your education is not just about your career. It is to give you a meaningful and full life.”

Parent perspective

‘It is awkward for parents, and if your parents didn’t talk to you, you don’t have that experience to go on. So that’s why the parents are so hungry for a little bit of help.’ — Kathy Mallick, Parents’ Association president

 

Usually, Parents’ Association President Kathy Mallick hears it all.

Her job — as she puts it — is to listen. 

She listens when her phone rings with complaints about teachers. She listens when people come to her with suggestions for events. She listens to every opinion parents have when it comes to making decisions. 

But this time was different. 

When fifth and sixth grade parents raised concerns about the school’s lack of depth in sex education, proposing that the association began to educate parents on how to talk to their kids about sex — Mallick only heard one thing:

We need this.

“When you get a group of people all kind of saying the same thing,” Mallick said, “to be an effective President of the Parents’ Association, I need to listen and then try to make things happen.”

In November, Mallick took the concerns to Director of Counseling Barbara Van Drie, who had just been “patiently waiting” for someone to show interest in the topic.

“When I went to [Van Drie], she said, ‘Oh thank goodness you’ve come,’” Mallick said. “She has curriculum. She’s ready, and every class wants her to come and talk to them.”

After telling Van Drie the association’s idea to talk to parents, the two agreed that it was something they needed to do.

 They both believe sex education should be based on family values and expectations, and the only place a student can learn that is from his parents.

“They are the best people to have this conversation with their children,” Van Drie said. “Particularly around things like transmitting values, talking about hopes and expectations, and what you want for your son’s life.”

But despite a parent’s role in educating their kids, Van Drie and Mallick realized many don’t know how to have these conversations.

“It is awkward for parents,” Mallick said. “And if your parents didn’t talk to you, you don’t have that experience to go on. So that’s why the parents are so hungry for a little bit of help.”

So on Jan. 26, the two prepared a presentation to sixth grade parents, hoping to arm them with the skills they need. 

With over 60 people packed into the Nearburg 114 conference room on that Tuesday morning, Van Drie told them, if they haven’t started talking to their kids by now — they are behind.

“The intention is simply equipping them, and perhaps even more so building their confidence to have these conversations,” Van Drie said. “Because that’s really all it is . . . it’s educating them and putting them at ease with the idea of talking about sex. So parents can be comfortable with a potentially uncomfortable topic, that they can discuss sexuality and here’s how to do it.”

After seeing the success of the presentation to sixth-grade parents, Mallick and Van Drie decided to present again to other grades. Having recently finished one with fifth grade parents and another with tenth grade parents, the two are now working to present to the Lower School.

But beyond educating parents on the topic, Mallick hopes that ultimately the school will bring more of these types of conversations into the curriculum for students whose parents don’t discuss it at home.

“As the mother of four boys, I feel like I can handle it myself, but I do know there are people that don’t handle it,” Mallick said. “And I’m a big supporter of St. Mark’s for a lot of years now and I want us to be perfect. So I would love us — maybe it’s through our character and leadership education — to bring in some of these other conversations.”