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RBHS health teachers aim to support all students during human sexuality unit

Photo by Sarah Mosteller.
Photo by Sarah Mosteller.

Note: Health teachers Mitchell Pittman and Amy McKenzie collaborated on the quotes and information included in this story. 

At RBHS students have the option of taking in-seat or online health class during the year or the summer in order to fulfill the half credit they need to graduate. While health teachers Mitchell Pittman and Amy McKenzie don’t teach online health, they both teach in-seat health during the year, and Pittman also teaches in-seat health during the summer. 

When teaching the human sexuality unit, Pittman and McKenzie said their goal is to present information in a way that is scientifically accurate and unbiased. In general, they said health education aids students in navigating the large volume of information available to them by teaching them to think critically and empowering them to make healthy lifestyle choices for themselves. 

For some topics in the health curriculum, McKenzie and Pittman said this could mean practicing first aid or learning to address a conflict. With sexual health information, they said they emphasize providing accurate information and a healthy discussion place over skills-based teaching because students’ backgrounds tend to vary more in this area.

McKenzie and Pittman said they strive to make their classroom a safe space for students who come from all backgrounds, experiences, beliefs and religions. They said reaching every student can be a challenge no matter the subject because students have differing levels of prior knowledge and different interests. Students also differ in age. With regards to sex ed, McKenzie and Pittman said they handle the subject matter in a similar way for all the age levels they teach but are prepared to answer different questions each age group may have.  

McKenzie and Pittman began teaching health at RBHS at the start of the 2018-2019 school year. They said they paired their knowledge and creativity with Missouri state health standards to design the curriculum to match their teaching philosophies. When they started teaching, they said they did not receive any complaints about the old curriculum and were excited to leave their mark on the class.

“Teachers get excited about the idea of creating new, meaningful lessons for their students that align with their teaching philosophy and skill set. Our hope and goal has been to create a curriculum that is rigorous [and] that causes our students to think at deeper levels, while also maintaining relevance so they can easily see how this content can relate to their lives.” Amy McKenzie and Mitchell Pittman

“Teachers get excited about the idea of creating new, meaningful lessons for their students that align with their teaching philosophy and skill set,” McKenzie and Pittman said. “Our hope and goal has been to create a curriculum that is rigorous [and] that causes our students to think at deeper levels, while also maintaining relevance so they can easily see how this content can relate to their lives.” 

Sophomore Will Andrews took in-seat health the first semester of his freshman year, and freshman Ella Carroz took in-seat health over the summer. Both students said their classes covered consent and put a strong focus on Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and ways to prevent them. Pittman and McKenzie said they try not to use “scare tactics” to frighten students into making healthy decisions, and Andrews said he thought his teacher’s way of presenting STDs and consent was clear and effective. 

“I think the things that stuck with the STDs was [my teacher] talked about the effects very well and what could happen. I mean, it scared us a bit because these things were not, obviously, positive, and I think that’s what resonated with us,” Andrews said. “With consent it was talking about it because sometimes it’s never talked about. He talked about it like we were people rather than students.”

“I think the things that stuck with the STDs was [my teacher] talked about the effects very well and what could happen. I mean, it scared us a bit because these things were not, obviously, positive, and I think that’s what resonated with us. With consent it was talking about it because sometimes it’s never talked about. He talked about it like we were people rather than students.”Will Andrews, sophomore

Carroz also said the teachers presented the sexual health information in a way that helped her learn and make sense of it. She said her class took notes from a PowerPoint, filled out papers and completed memorization tasks, which she said she enjoyed. Carroz also said a guest teacher came and spoke to her class about STDs. While Carroz said she wished her class spent less time with STDs because she learned about them in middle school, she said upperclassmen may need to review the content. She also said it was interesting to hear the guest speaker talk more in depth about STDs and answer questions.

Overall, Carroz said she wished the sex-ed unit was longer than three days but understands that it had to be shorter than in-seat health because it occurred over the summer. Pittman said the in-seat health class covers the human sexuality unit in six days, not counting the unit test, while in-seat summer school covers human sexuality in three days. He said summer school health curriculum mirrors the in-seat course except for a few activities and assessments that have to be different because of time constraints. Pittman said he only has 21 days of three hour classes to teach the in-seat summer school class all the content. 

While Carroz said she understands the class has a time constraint, she said she wished the class discussed what to do in a situation involving rape or unsafe sex. She said although the class talked about why one shouldn’t engage in unsafe sex and went over birth control options, they did not discuss abortion. She said she thinks it’s important for victims of rape or those who find themselves in an unsafe situation to know what options they have to prevent a pregnancy.

Did you know?
Under Missouri law, health teachers cannot present abortion as an option for preventing an unwanted pregnancy or use materials sponsored by abortion providers in their lessons. Source: Missouri Revisor of Statutes 170.015

While McKenzie and Pittman said they have not received any questions related to abortion so far, they said “any answer would have to remain within the boundaries of state law and district policy.”  

Missouri law prohibits all district and charter schools from providing abortion services or allowing “a person or entity to offer, sponsor or furnish” material relating to human sexuality or sexually transmitted diseases “if such person or entity is a provider of abortion services.” 

As for in-seat health during the school year, Andrews said he would like to see a greater emphasis on homosexual sex. Andrews, who identifies as gay, said his teacher briefly mentioned that everyone could get STDs but didn’t explicitly talk about homosexual sex. He said the class focused on consequences of sexual activity such as pregnancy that mainly impact heterosexual individuals. While he said the curriculum is designed to reach a primarily heterosexual audience, even one presentation slide could make a difference for homosexual students.

“Maybe our generation just isn’t ready to hear about [homosexual sex],” Andrews said, “which is kind of sad, but the fact that there’s not even an option for some of us to maybe learn about it is kind of scary because I think it will make us more prone to things we are not going to be aware of.”

Andrews said not teaching about homosexual sex may cause gay individuals to think there’s no risk in being sexually active because they know pregnancy is not a concern. Carroz said she thinks there should be more information for LGBTQ students about potential risks of sexual activity and options they have if they want a child in the future. She said LGBTQ people deserve a fair education.

Did you know?
When sexual health curriculum doesn’t address LGBT students, they don’t have the information they need to make healthy choices and are at an increased risk for bullying because of exclusionary school environments. Source: americanprogress.org

McKenzie and Pittman said they do not explicitly teach about homosexual sex because Columbia Public Schools (CPS) and the state of Missouri dictate the curriculum. The health teachers said any systematic changes would need to occur throughout high schools in Columbia and across the state. Nevertheless, they said they are willing to answer students’ questions and or direct them to reliable sources.

“Students who would like more information regarding any form of sexual relationship can utilize Nurse Tammy and Nurse Danielle here at RBHS. They are available for one-on-one consultation and have a variety [of] literature [and] pamphlets available regarding sexual health,” Pittman and McKenzie said. “We also encourage our students to engage their parents [and or] guardians in conversations about all aspects of their health.”

Pittman and McKenzie also said students have the option to anonymously ask questions via a Post-It Note during class, which the teachers will answer and return to the classroom for students to view as needed. They said they strive to make their classroom a safe environment for students to ask questions without judgement. 

Carroz said she thought the sex-ed curriculum was well-taught and covered most of the information she felt she needed. She also said she liked how her class was co-ed and how everyone learned the same material at the same time.  

“While there are some things as I look back I wished they covered or went more in-depth with,” Carroz said, “I do feel like they have taught me all the basics and taught me how to safely have sex if I chose or things I should expect from life in general in this area.”

What did you think about your sexual health education? Let us know in the comments below.

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