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NY Teacher's Experience a Reminder of the Challenges of Teaching Sex Education

Sometimes it seems like conducting a classroom lesson on sex education is a landmine with wrong steps possible at every turn. Take the experience of Faith Kramer, an 8th grade teacher from Staten Island, NY. In 2008, this 26-year teaching vet was removed from her classroom after the Department of Education claimed that she had violated a regulation prohibiting verbal abuse, or the use of language that could cause "fear, physical or mental distress," and charged her with using corporal punishment for doing so.

So what did Kramer do or say to her students? Nothing really. It seems she simply followed state guidelines on teaching about about HIV.

As the New York Times reports,

On Feb. 6, 2008, the teacher, Faith Kramer, a health and physical education teacher at Intermediate School 72 on Staten Island, taught a state-mandated lesson on the various behaviors that can transmit H.I.V./AIDS. According to legal documents filed with the case, she wrote down the polite words for sexual organs, sexual acts and bodily fluids on the board — and then asked her students to list any other terms they might know for those things.

[According to a judge reviewing the case] in doing so, she appeared to be following the spirit of a state syllabus that directed that students be encouraged to use sexual terms that they understood, so that they could relate those words to the more formal terminology. “If students use different terms,” the syllabus says, “make sure they understand the relationship between both sets of terms.”

Apparently, the principal who requested an investigation, and the Department of Education which conducted it, weren't exactly up to date on those curriculum guidelines. As a result, Kramer was taken out of the classroom for over six months and sent to an administrative detention center before she was able to resume her duties. Now--in a case that a federal judge decided could proceed despite the city's attempts to dismiss it--Kramer is seeking damages for mental anguish, lawyer’s fees and the loss of extra after-school work.

As someone who teaches sex ed, I have to say, Kramer's experience does sound pretty mentally anguishing. Teachers shouldn't have to censor themselves at every turn--especially if a topic or word is introduced by a student.

Obviously, it is important to be sensitive, careful and appropriate when talking about sex with teens. But, you also have to be clear and make sure that kids know what you are saying, even if that means clearing up misconceptions by using language that doesn't often get used in other classes. Really, one missed word can render an entire lesson meaningless. For example, you can't expect students to understand what you are saying if you tell them to avoid getting ejaculate into the vagina during intercourse by using a prophylactic, when the words they know in this context are cum, coochie, screwing and rubber.

Both Faith Kramer, and her state's mandated curriculum seem to get this. Too bad that principals like hers, not to mention, the New York City Department of Education, don't.

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