How does federal funding impact how kids are taught about sex?

By Anna Brooks

Year after year, New York State Senate bills mandating comprehensive sex education in schools fail to pass.

New York is also one of 38 states annually tapping into the $75 million federal reserve for abstinence-only education, receiving more than $4 million last year (behind Texas and Florida, New York received the third highest amount of funding for abstinence education in the country).

There’s a misconception that all this money is utilized by private schools, but almost $3 million of abstinence education grant money goes toward a youth development initiative called STYA (Successfully Transitioning Youth to Adolescence) each year. Funded by the New York State Department of Health, STYA is technically a teen pregnancy prevention program, even though the programs don’t advocate for abstinence or address sex in any form.

“We don’t touch sex ed at all,” said Grace Beard, a health education specialist working for the YWCA of Syracuse & Onondaga County’s STYA program. “It’s mostly goal setting and building healthy group dynamics.”

Targeting youth ages nine to 12, there are 16 STYA programs across the state implemented in counties with the highest rates of teen pregnancy. Beard runs after-school programs in four elementary schools in Syracuse — with roughly 20 children in each program —  and leads discussions, games and activities that teach kids goal setting and how to avoid risky behaviors as they move into their teen years.

David Pittman, the STYA program coordinator at YWCA Syracuse & Onondaga County, said program leaders like Beard do specialize in reproductive health education, but that isn’t the focus of the program. Pittman said the program aims to expand a child’s network of support and engage them through activities like art, crafts, cooking, sports and writing.

“We don’t say, ‘Hey, you’re in a teen pregnancy prevention program,’” he said. “We’re trying to address the underlying causes of children engaging in sex to begin with. A lot of children engage in at-risk behavior due to dysfunction at home or school. We’re giving them tools to make smarter choices.”

Alexandra Smith developed a more relationship-oriented STYA program through The Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center, where children do photography and play games like “Relationship Jeopardy.” Smith worked with youth at middle schools in the South Bronx; the borough itself has the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state.

Despite the push for comprehensive sex education in New York City, recipients of the federal government’s abstinence-only education funding stipulates any discussions around sex must be abstinence-based. With limited options, STYA program leaders like Smith opt to not talk about sex at all.

“Would it be great to teach sex ed? Sure, but we’re not allowed to talk at all about pregnancy or anything like that,” Smith explained. “It’s more about increasing prosocial behaviors. The evidence supports that if kids are busy outside of school, they don’t get into as much trouble.”

New York State’s STYA initiative was allocated funding to run the programs for five years, starting in 2013. The contract is up for renewal this fall. But Smith said she was informed that federal funding will no longer be available for these types of programs, meaning the millions of dollars New York receives in abstinence-only education grants will likely go toward bodies legitimately teaching abstinence.

When asked to confirm this information, the state department responded via email that “the Department awaits the release of the new federal funding opportunity announcement for guidance in determining future funding for a new youth initiative that supports the healthy transition of preteen youth into young adulthood.”

For those like Eddie Lewis, who leads the University of Rochester’s STYA program, being unable to continue the after-school programs he runs would be a huge disappointment for both children in need of productive after-school activities, and for parents who’ve seen drastic improvements in their child’s behavior.

Close to 200 children per year are part of the Rochester after-school programs, which Lewis said builds self-confidence and helps children who are struggling to understand their development as they prepare for life as a teenager.

“I know what line of work I’m in and the grant could end, but it would be very difficult for kids who look forward to these programs,” he said. “There’s not too many programs in Rochester that are focusing on kids in that age range.”