For millions of people who grew up in the Chicago area, learning about their bodies from Valeda, the transparent, computerized talking woman at the Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale was as much a part of puberty as shopping for their first bras or adjusting to voice changes.
Recemtly, the Robert Crown center packed up Valeda and other exhibits, vacating the one-story building where the nonprofit hosted field trips for Chicago-area elementary and middle school students for more than 40 years. The center is transitioning to an all-mobile approach, bringing its sexual health programs directly into schools, where educators want to avoid costly bus rides and save precious classroom time in an age of high-stakes mandatory testing and budget shortfalls.
The move illustrates the evolution of sex education, which has received renewed focus from educators in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
As victim after victim has come forward to report decades of sexual misconduct, abuse of power and outdated gender roles, advocates who develop and provide sex education resources for schools say many school districts are now embracing a philosophy their organizations have touted for years: Sex education in schools must be delivered through a more social-emotional approach, not merely a fifth-grade field trip to see a robotic woman with light-up fallopian tubes, or a one-time lecture from a gym teacher on "the birds and the bees."
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"There's definitely a push that we're already seeing in terms of what we hear from educators," said Nicole Cushman, executive director of Answer, a national organization out of Rutgers University that provides and promotes sex education. "They're looking for lesson plans, tools, things they can use to get the conversations started in the classroom."
To meet the demand, organizations like Robert Crown and Answer are developing new curricula and resources to help school districts teach sex education on a continuum, starting with lessons on how to be a good friend in kindergarten, and working up to facts about sexually transmitted diseases in 12th grade.
But will this increased interest in sex education be enough for a cultural shift that prevents future #MeToo movements?
It's complicated, advocates say.
School budget constraints and an emphasis on common core subjects and test scores persist. Meanwhile, because Illinois and several other states do not mandate sex education at public schools, disparity abounds. While some school districts embrace new social-emotional sex education offerings, others offer no sex education to students at all.
"That really is part of the challenge when we talk about what it would take to have the tools to have solutions for addressing the #MeToo issue," said Chitra Panjabi, president and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a Washington-based organization that offers fact-based sexual education resources. "This patchwork of laws and policies makes it really challenging to ensure that we have a consistent way of providing this education that young people need."
And as technology and culture evolves, so must education. When Kenneth Polin, a pediatrician at Town & Country Pediatrics in Chicago, had children in elementary school 20 years ago, he volunteered to speak to the fifth-grade class members each year about their changing bodies. In his lessons to boys and girls, Polin, now 62, partnered with a school social worker to talk about about male and female anatomy.
Polin then did his best to answer questions. "I tried to give them the straight story, not censored at all," he recalled. "I wanted to give them information and not apply guilt."
But that was before the internet was available to offer children access to information, images and discussions well beyond their years. Today, young people need much more than a one-time visit from a doctor to field their questions about sex, Polin said.
"Kids know so much more than they did previously," he said. "It's become critical that they are educated better."
Illinois state law does not mandate sex education in public schools and offers only broad guidelines to those schools districts that choose to include it.
Up until 2013, a state statute required school districts that opted to teach sex education in grades six through 12 to emphasize abstinence as the expected norm, teaching that abstaining from sex is the only option that is 100 percent effective against unwanted pregnancies and disease, and that pupils should not engage in sexual intercourse until they are ready for marriage.
But after pushback from legislators who pointed to studies that abstinence-only education was not effective, the law was changed in 2014 to state that sex education for grades six through 12 should include instruction on both abstinence and birth control for the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
To fill in the gaps, several nonprofit organizations have stepped in to develop sex education programs for school districts to use if they see fit.
At Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based organization that promotes policy and champions sexual health programs for youths, staff two years ago saw a shortage of curricula available to teach students in kindergarten through 12th grade about sexual health in a way that was continuous and inclusive of people of various sexual orientations and genders.
The organization developed a comprehensive new program, which comes with homework assignments for students and their families, and lessons at every grade level, ranging from identifying body parts, to how to have consent conversations about sex before, not during, the moment. The program, called Rights, Respect and Responsibility, has been one of the most downloaded offerings on the organization's website in recent months, said Debra Hauser, executive director for Advocates for Youth.
"It's not like you're teaching sex in elementary school," Hauser said. "If you've got a good, quality, comprehensive sex ed program, what you get is this scaffolding of topics that helps young people to identify things."
Answer, the group out of Rutgers, released an animated video last year geared toward 10- to 14-year-olds about sexual assault. The video has been viewed more than 104,000 times – surpassing all other videos the organization released last year – and demonstrating educators' need for teaching materials in the wake of #MeToo, Cushman said.
Carolyn Fitzpatrick, medical director of the Dr. A. L. Burdick Family Medicine Center in Oak Park, said each of her four children, ages 15, 12, 9 and 6, attended health education programs at the Robert Crown Center. She, too, saw a presentation that included Valeda when she was a teen growing up in the Chicago suburbs.
But the #MeToo movement has reminded us that in today's world we must keep lines of communication open with children about their bodies, safety and sexual situations on many levels, she said. Parents have the first job of introducing concepts and beginning to teach empowerment and respect for themselves and others. But schools are also an ideal setting for some of the messages to sink in, Fitzpatrick added.
"They can feel a little more comfortable knowing that there's another child who has a similar thought or a similar question," she said.
From Robert Crown's new office-only space in Hinsdale, which will house employees, the 18 staff members are now redesigning their sex education program brought entirely to schools. Although they are still in early discussions, education staff know the new curriculum will start young, teach students about healthy relationships and breaking gender silos, and aim to empower children to feel comfortable talking to each other and trusted adults about topics once considered uncomfortable.
"In the past our programs have been very science-based," said Kris Adzia, director of education for the center. "We're looking to expand to more social-emotional topics. Those conversations would be a good fit and help lay the foundation for healthy relationships."
For now, Valeda and other exhibits from the old building will be stored at McMillen Health in Fort Wayne, Ind. In two years, the exhibits will be shipped as a donation to what is to be a new health center in Chandigarh, India, the first of its kind in the country. The old Robert Crown Center building was purchased for $2.35 million by the Hinsdale Humane Society, which plans to use it to expand.
Robert Crown Center officials say even without their historic building, they plan to keep serving more than 80,000 students in the Chicago area each year.
"It's the end of an era," said Barb Thayer, the center's executive director. "But we have to adapt to what the culture is in the world and in the school environment. The field trip model just doesn't work the way it once did."