Tough New Issues Refocus Health Education: Technology Spurs the Need for New or Revised Curricula in Schools

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FROM DATING VIOLENCE to sexting and social networking, districts are struggling to address a number of sensitive and relatively new health education issues that are aggravated by students' increasing access to computers, cell phones and other digital devices. Through new or revised curricula, administrators are attempting to deal with these and other issues. Their efforts sometimes become contentious when parents object to language or materials used in a curriculum and even threaten lawsuits to force changes.

Malcolm Goldsmith, executive director of the American Association for Health Education, says technology represents the latest significant change in health education, which grew out of the "hygiene movement" 50 years ago, when "there was a lot of emphasis on taking care of your body." In the 1980s and '90s, while dedicated health teachers continued to instruct students on nutrition and personal health, there also was an increasing focus on drug education and the beginning of sex education.

In the last 10 years, Goldsmith continues, the focus has been on health problems linked to the six critical types of adolescent health behavior identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention--alcohol and drug use, injury and violence, tobacco use, nutrition, physical activity and sexual risk behaviors. Today, he says, suicide and mental health problems are growing, often stimulated by technology's impact.

"Cyberbullying and sexting can't happen without technology," says Susan Wooley, who just retired at the end of 2010 as executive director of the American School Health Association. "I don't think they existed 10 years ago and they were not big issues even five years ago, but they are now. The kids know more about them than the educators do, and the educators are trying to catch up."

Wooley says parents as well as school districts need to take a stronger role in addressing the issues their children face. In addition to talking about the issues with their children, they should take action when they become aware of incidents like cyberbullying. They should contact the parents of offenders to discuss the problem, reach out to social network providers like Facebook, and talk to school teachers and administrators about ways schools could provide education and counseling to students about potential consequences of this type of behavior, Wooley says.

Curriculum Changes

A revised health education curriculum that the Helena (Mont.) Public Schools adopted in October 2010 requires instruction in all grades to underscore district policy against any form of bullying or other harassment or intimidation of students. "We inserted the policy right into the curriculum," says Superintendent Bruce K. Messinger. But when parents objected to some language proposed for the curriculum--at least one parent threatened to sue the district the language was changed. For example, proposed instructional language in the seventh-grade curriculum discussing sexual assault and rape that included the phrase "penetration of the vagina, mouth or anus" was changed to "Montana law defines rape as sexual intercourse without consent."

In North Carolina, a new "Comprehensive Health Education Program" adopted last summer by the Chapel HillCarrboro City Schools mandates violence prevention and nutrition instruction starting in middle school. The district is calling on community resources for support, including the Family Violence Prevention Center of Orange County (N.C.) and the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, which send professionals trained in social work or related fields to talk to middle school students. For 45-minute classroom sessions on three consecutive days, they teach how to keep oneself safe from relationship violence and sexual bullying, reports Stephanie Willis, health coordinator for the school district. The district's regular health teachers sit in on the classroom sessions. …