Leaders of Healing to Action demand improvements to CPS’s sex ed curriculum to help remedy gender-based violence Credit: Andrea Michelson

Last Thursday, a small group of people gathered in a sun-drenched storefront on Kedzie Avenue in Irving Park. Brought together by the grassroots group Healing to Action, they came to discuss their mounting discontent about Chicago Public Schools’ sexual health education curriculum. Though the event welcomed anyone with kids, grandkids, or other relatives at CPS, and even just interested community members, no men showed up.

Last year, CPS released an assessment of its sex ed program. Though the district has a curriculum beginning with lessons on good touch/bad touch in kindergarten and continuing through discussions about healthy relationships in 12th grade, by its own measure, CPS is falling short on implementation. In the 2017-2018 school year, the report found, only 76 percent of schools had the required minimum of two school staff members who’d completed the district’s sex ed instructor training—meaning one in four schools didn’t. Just 28 percent of schools taught all the required sex ed minutes at all grade levels (300 minutes at every grade level in K–4, 675 minutes each year in 5th–12th grades). Only half of the district’s schools send a required note about sex ed instruction to parents every year.

Healing to Action’s leaders—mostly low-wage workers who’ve been organizing to address gender-based violence in their communities since 2016—were stunned. Yet the report confirmed many of their own experiences attempting to address issues of sexual and mental health with their children, grandchildren, and other kids in their extended family networks. The combination of taboos around speaking of sexual health in their families or cultures and the lack of transparency and support from CPS left them feeling stuck.

A handful of concerned parents stood up in front of the gathering on Thursday, and took turns speaking about their frustrations with sexual health education. They called on those in the audience to join them in a campaign to pressure CPS.

“The biggest problem we have in our neighborhoods is violence, gender violence specifically,” Margarita Miranda, one of Healing to Action’s leaders said in Spanish, as an English-language interpreter streamed her words into the headsets of attendees. “We’re joining together and want to demand that our voices are heard, so sex ed gets taught in every single school in Chicago.” She said neighborhood schools need more counselors and parents need help, both from CPS and community organizations, “so they’re prepared to talk to their kids. Explain to them what violence is, what sexual abuse is.”

Other attendees seemed frustrated by their own inability to discuss sex and relationships with their kids. “Our parents never talked to us about sexuality,” said Esperanza Emiliano, another group leader with three daughters who’ve gone through CPS schools. “We are here in the U.S., but the customs and traditions in our homes [are different]—we don’t speak about sexuality. We’re running the risk that our kids are getting an education out on the street, with bad information.”

Susan Aarup, a disability rights activist, positioned her wheelchair in a circle with Miranda and six others and explained that CPS’s sex ed curriculum is neither tailored to diverse learners nor takes the sexual health and sex lives of people with physical or mental disabilities into account. “As if people with disabilities—like it doesn’t affect them, or they don’t have sex,” she said. “The fact that it’s a nonissue is an issue.” Indeed, the CPS sex ed curriculum guide available online doesn’t mention sexual health and sexuality as they pertain to people with disabilities. Meanwhile, district data indicates that at least 14 percent of the students have special education needs.

The current political environment—both at CPS, which has been embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal, and in the wider culture with #MeToo—has created a new urgency for improved education on sexuality, relationships, and consent. Time and again, the women gathered said they wished the schools were better partners to their own efforts to disrupt harmful ways of viewing sex and gender. Some said they haven’t been able to find CPS’s sex ed materials in Spanish (though the district’s students are now nearly 47 percent Latinx and represent the largest demographic group in the schools). Others said they suspected that their kids weren’t receiving any sexual health instruction at school. Jennifer, a mom with three kids at a CPS magnet elementary school, said she’d been asking her school’s counselor to provide her with the sex ed curriculum so she could reinforce lessons at home, and never received a response. Sarah Rothschild, an education policy researcher with the Chicago Teachers Union and a member of the Tilden Career Community Academy Local School Council, said the school never received a promised social worker after CPS announced a hiring spree last summer.

CPS says it’s working to improve its sex ed curriculum. “The district has a robust sexual education curriculum which is currently in the process of being updated to include additional content on consent, gender-based violence, personal safety, dating violence, cyber bullying, and navigating online and social media,” district spokeswoman Emily Bolton wrote in an e-mail. She added that the curriculum is already available in both English and Spanish. “Parents can speak with their schools to access a copy. The full curriculum is not available online to the public in any language, but instructors are trained to engage parents and encouraged to share the content if they have any questions or concerns.” Bolton didn’t respond to questions about how the district plans to remedy problems of equal access to sex ed that were identified in its own report from last year.

Healing to Action is now gathering data to figure out exactly which schools are lacking sex ed instruction. “Our hunch is that this is probably falling along the lines of income and race,” Sheerine Alemzadeh, Healing to Action’s cofounder, said after the event. The next steps in community engagement will focus on collecting feedback from students and bringing more men into the conversation. “A lot of our leaders talked about how their kids were either being targeted for or engaging in bullying. They’re seeing this kind of masculine behavior as part of the problem that they’re trying to use this campaign to address,” Alemzadeh said. “If you start talking about gender identity and roles and healthy masculinity and consent and healthy relationships, then hopefully you can prevent the bullying and prevent some of the stuff that’s not just sexual harassment or sexual violence, but some of those toxic attitudes that translate over time into abusive behavior.”

The group has already printed red, white, and blue postcards outlining their campaign and demands for CPS: “Right now, sex ed is not equal across all Chicago schools,” the card declares on one side. On the other, “We” are introduced as workers from across the city who’ve experienced gender-based violence. “We believe a lack of meaningful sex ed perpetuated the cycle of poverty and violence in our communities,” the card declares. “We demand: A voice to make sure that sex ed is taught in all Chicago Schools; Funding for equal access to sex ed, regardless of zip code; Support for parents to understand sex ed and teach kids about healthy relationships at home.”   v

Andrea Michelson contributed reporting to this story.