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New Sex Ed Program Created for Special Education Students

After more than two years of researching sex education teaching materials for cognitively impaired students, Thornapple Kellogg School District will put in place a new reproductive health program this fall.

Keeping special education students safe is the top reason for creating the new type of class, said Kim Chausow, director of curriculum at Thornapple Kellogg.

Cognitively impaired students have higher numbers of getting involved in unsafe sexual situations and experience abuse at much higher rates than people without disabilities, she said.

Increased Risk of Sexual Harm

People with an intellectual disability experience all forms of abuse, including sexual abuse, at higher rates than the rest of the population. Some of the reasons for this increased risk include:

  • Lack of knowledge about sexual issues
  • Misinformation about sex from peers, rather than books or other reliable sources
  • Lack of intellectual ability to understand the changes happening to their bodies
  • Tendency to be overly compliant, particularly those children requiring a high level of support
  • Lack of assertiveness training or skills
  • An overprotected lifestyle and limited social contact
  • Physical inability to resist, avoid or stop abusive behavior from happening
  • Agreeing to engage in sexual activity to fulfill unsatisfied cravings for attention, affection or rewards

Some common reasons given for NOT educating young people with an intellectual disability about sexuality:

  • There is a misconception that young people with an intellectual disability don’t need sex education because they will always remain “child-like,” and therefore non-sexual.
  • Some parents fear a young person with sexual knowledge will be more likely to experiment with sex and have an unplanned pregnancy, contract an STI or “get into trouble” in some way. The underlying hope is that a young person who doesn’t know about sex will have no desire to express their sexuality. In fact, the reverse is true.
  • Some parents find it difficult to discuss sex, and this can be more difficult if the young person has a disability.
  • The parents may have tried to talk to their child about sex, but weren’t able to express the information in a way the young person could understand. Failed attempts may cause parents to give up.

Benefits of sex education:

  • Increased social skills
  • Improved assertiveness
  • Greater independence
  • Ability to take greater responsibility for their sexuality
  • Reduced risk of sexual abuse, STIs and unintended pregnancy
  • Language to report an incidence of abuse
  • Healthier choices
  • Less chance of risk-taking behaviors.

Source: U.S. Department of Education

Megan Roon, the school district’s social worker, said students are finding ways to view pornography and share inappropriate pictures and information about themselves.

“Those with neurological difficulties can be talked into dangerous situations because they do not comprehend the dangers and just want to be someone’s friend,” Roon said.

“There are staggering statistics about students with neurological disorders who have been or are being sexually abused due to lack of understanding.”

Parents Sought Help Teaching Sex Ed

The parental reaction to the new curriculum has been positive, Roon said. “Parents often say ‘thank you’ and appear relieved that the school will be aiding them in the discussions,” she said. Several parents have asked TK schools how to talk to their son or daughter about maturation and sexual development.

“Parents begged us to do more,” Chausow said. “They don’t know how to talk to kids about sex. It’s hard enough with a typical kid.”

Searching for Resources

Chausow looked for information from other Kent ISD schools to create the new curriculum, but found only a few were teaching it, she said, and none the way TK wanted to. More individualized teaching tailored to each students’ needs was the main goal.

Working with Grand Valley State University, they found the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council book, “Sexuality Across the Lifespan.” It will be used along with other sources.

Teachers, school personnel and others in the education field in Michigan and across the nation agree there is not enough sexual education material available for special ed students, said Laurie Bechhofer, a consultant for the Michigan Department of Education.

“School districts across Michigan recognize special education students also need quality reproductive health and sex education programs, and often those programs need to be adapted or tailored to meet their needs,” she said.

“These students have significant needs in this area, and yet there is a lack of curricular resources available nationally to address the needs.”

Class Content

Although students may have developmental levels much younger than their chronological age, they continue to develop, have hormonal changes and feelings throughout life. Previously, TK had all general education students as well as students with disabilities use the general education curriculum and participate in the “Willing to Wait Curriculum and Program,” but its content was “too over the heads” of students, Chausow said.

The new class will cover when, where and what’s OK in regard to sexual subjects. Changes in the body, social skills between sexes, dating and abuse also will be covered.

In the fall, a parent meeting will be held to explain the new curriculum that will be used for middle and high school students. Parents will be able to opt out of the new class and have their child use the “Willing to Wait” curriculum, Roon said.

The program is a work in progress, she noted.

“This will be our first year, and we will continue to develop and adapt as new situations arise,” she said.


“Sexuality Across Life Spans”

Sex Education for Children with Intellecual Disabilities: Tips for Parents

State of Michigan HIV and sex education

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.


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