Opinion
Curriculum Commentary

A Better Sexuality Education Course Might Have Helped

By Susan N. Wilson — May 10, 2000 5 min read
We have to advocate for programs that go beyond abstinence-only, or abstinence- until-marriage.

Do you remember Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson? They are the two teenagers from a wealthy, upper-middle-class New Jersey suburb who were convicted of manslaughter in the death of their newborn son, whose body was left in a garbage bag in a dumpster outside a Delaware motel. The couple had successfully hidden Amy’s pregnancy from parents, high school friends, a college roommate, and even a family pediatrician, before delivering the baby themselves. Brian was released from prison in December. Amy will be free this month.

I revisit this teenage tragedy because of a disquieting new book by Doug Most, Always in Our Hearts: The Story of Amy Grossberg, Brian Peterson, and the Baby They Didn’t Want (St. Martin’s Press). To help adults, teenagers, parents, school administrators, physicians, and health/sexuality educators learn from this tragedy, Mr. Most analyzes the time, the place, and the people.

The author discusses many complicating factors in trying to arrive at the answer to “Why did this tragedy occur?” One of the factors he questions is the timing and overall quality of the high school sex education program that Amy and Brian took together. He makes the following points:

  • Amy and Brian took sex education, or “family living,” in the fall of their senior year, nine months after they had begun to have intercourse (during which time they used a condom sporadically, because he found it embarrassing to buy them).
  • The course was offered in their senior year, because the school approached the subject “cautiously and conservatively,” in keeping with parents’ beliefs that “if we don’t expose them to it, maybe they won’t try it.”
  • The administration didn’t take the course seriously. Classes in other subjects were kept small to foster discussion. Health classes had up to 40 students. Little or no time was devoted to small-group exercises or role- playing to develop decisionmaking, communication, or refusal skills.
  • School officials ignored editorials in the school paper that repeatedly criticized students for casual sexual practices. They ignored the fact that many students were having sex, and that some had had pregnancies and abortions.
  • The school principal laughed off one teacher’s suggestion of buying and using an “Empathy Belly,” a product that weighs 30 pounds (the average weight gain in a pregnancy), as a deterrent to irresponsible sexual practices. The principal’s stated reason: “Parents would never allow it in the school.”
  • The course focused primarily on the physiological facts: ways of abstaining; sexually transmitted diseases; and how to put on a condom. Students didn’t learn about the consequences of having sex, or their options should they become pregnant. They didn’t talk about emotions, feelings, attitudes, and values.
  • The course culminated in an assignment to give students a sense of the hard work involved in parenthood: They had to carry around five-pound bags of flour for a week. (Amy and Brian chose to carry Cabbage Patch dolls instead.) Students complied in order to get an automatic A in the course, but obviously got little from the exercise. There was flour all over the school, because students “kicked” around their “babies.”

    Mr. Most’s book reminds me of the lines, “For of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.”

  • If the school district had offered the sexuality education course in 9th grade before students had begun to have sex, it might have helped.
  • If the administration had seen sexuality education as an important subject in students’ lives, as important to their well-being, it might have helped.
  • If the course had taught young people how to develop communication, decisionmaking, and other behavioral skills through role- playing, small-group discussions, brainstorming, and similar strategies, it might have helped.
  • If abstinence had been taught in ways that students could see its value, discussing, for example, its advantages and disadvantages, it might have helped.
  • If Amy and Brian had role-played talking with their parents about sex, an unplanned pregnancy, or buying condoms, or had they watched other classmates act out such scenarios, it might have helped. (Amy and her mother never talked about sex.)
  • If Amy and Brian had understood, by talking with other teenagers in small-group exercises, that a young person isn’t ready to have sex unless he or she is willing to use contraception each and every time and be ready to accept the consequences of an unintended pregnancy, it might have helped.
  • If Amy and Brian had visited a neonatal clinic or talked with a teenage mother about the challenges of early parenthood—rather than carry around their Cabbage Patch dolls—it might have helped.
  • If Amy and Brian had talked about the options of abortion, adoption, or counseling in class with their peers, it might have helped.
  • If the class had visited a family-planning clinic, it might have helped. (Amy was terrified of contracting a disease from an abortion clinic.)

    But, we shall never know.


    If Amy and Brian had role-played talking with their parents about sex, an unplanned pregnancy, or buying condoms, it might have helped.

    I believe that the most important lesson for school administrators and for health/sexuality educators in Doug Most’s book is that we have to muster the courage to advocate for programs that are meaningful for young people, programs that are grounded in reality rather than adults’ wishes about teenage behaviors. We have to advocate for programs that go beyond abstinence-only, or abstinence-until-marriage; we must stand up to a single parent’s objections about the course’s content; and we must argue for programs that not only provide accurate, relevant information, but also develop behavioral skills, so that teens learn to talk to each other about sex in a respectful, mature, and responsible way.

    If we take actions such as these, not only will we have strengthened school sexuality education programs, but we will also fulfill the goals of this new book: We will have learned from the tragedy of Amy and Brian and the baby they didn’t want, and make it less likely to recur.


    Susan N. Wilson is the executive coordinator of the Network for Family Life, a program of the Rutgers University school of social work, in Piscataway, N.J. She manages an organization that provides resources, advocacy, and technical assistance to support comprehensive sexuality education programs in the public schools.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2000 edition of Education Week as A Better Sexuality Education Course Might Have Helped

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Recruiting and Retaining a More Diverse Teaching Workforce
We discuss the importance of workforce diversity and learn strategies to recruit and retain teachers from diverse backgrounds.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
Student Well-Being Webinar Boosting Teacher and Student Motivation During the Pandemic: What It Takes
Join Alyson Klein and her expert guests for practical tips and discussion on how to keep students and teachers motivated as the pandemic drags on.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Holistic Approach to Social-Emotional Learning
Register to learn about the components and benefits of holistically implemented SEL.
Content provided by Committee for Children

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Principal
Meredith, New Hampshire
Inter-Lakes School District
Elementary Principal
Washington State
Wenatchee School District
Principal
Meredith, New Hampshire
Inter-Lakes School District
Elementary Principal
Washington State
Wenatchee School District

Read Next

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Whitepaper
Survey: Increased ebook usage & value amid COVID-19
With COVID-19 altering nearly all aspects of daily life, including the way students learn, this survey sought insight from those on the f...
Content provided by OverDrive
Curriculum Opinion Ian Rowe Discusses 1776 Unites and His Efforts to Promote a Vision of a Unified America
Ian Rowe, co-founder of 1776 Unites, discusses the initiative and its efforts to promote pathways to opportunity for Americans of all races.
7 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Curriculum From ‘Stunning’ to ‘Surprising’: How News of the Capitol Attack Was Repackaged for Schools
Experts criticized ed-tech company Newsela for sugarcoating the violent insurrection when it adapted an Associated Press story for schools.
6 min read
A man dressed as George Washington and holding a Trump flag kneels and prays near the Washington Monument on Jan. 6.
A man dressed as George Washington and holding a Trump flag kneels and prays near the Washington Monument on Jan. 6.
Carolyn Kaster/AP
Curriculum 6 Ways to Help Students Make Sense of the Capitol Siege
A week after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, teachers are helping students figure out how the country got to this point.
15 min read
Image of the Capitol building shown in a rearview mirror.
Macrocosm Photography/E+