Warning: The following article mentions sensitive subjects as they pertain to health classes in Monticello. There is nothing graphic, only academic mentions of rape, abuse, eating disorders, and suicide.
Health class, arguably, has the potential to be one of the most important classes a student in high school can take.
The purpose of health class is to educate the students about their changing bodies and how to maintain nutrition. Other topics in health include sex education, healthy relationships, Driver’s Ed (for sophomores), substance abuse, STI’s, etc.
“The importance of [health class] is to know that health is important, to get students aware of health issues,” said Ms. Price-Thomas, Head of the PE/Health Department. “[We teach students] how to take care of themselves, and how to take care of others.”
There are many different forms of health classes at Monticello. There is the standard health class, which students have for a quarter of the year, with either Ms. Price-Thomas, Ms. Bradley, or Mr. McDaniel. Meanwhile, there is also the option for online health or summer health, and kids in HMSA have a particularly unique situation. While there is some variation between in-school and online classes, the curriculum remains mostly consistent.
Most students have health class for one total semester in their entire four years of high school, but one of the exceptions to this rule is the HMSA kids. Students in HMSA do not take the traditional Health 9 class. Since most of the content is incorporated into the HMSA Biology/Principles of Biomedicine class, the students only meet a couple of times during Mustang Morning to learn about STIs, cancer, and sex education. For the last two years, Mr. Dove has even incorporated a lesson on the difference between healthy relationships and abusive ones by adding in a case of an abuse victim in a lesson. His lesson touched on Battered Person Syndrome, which has both a physical and mental health component.
Both Ms. Dudley and Mr. Dove feel that the HMSA students get the same sex education as the rest of the school, just in a different amount of time and different format.
The online form of health class covers much of the same topics that an in-school health class covers. However, there are some differences. For one, the entire class is based off of the idea that every action brings us closer to fitness or premature death.
This point of view is very over-simplified and harsh. However, later lessons prove that this tone does not remain. In the lesson on body image. the teacher speaks about eating disorders with sensitivity and depth, while warning students not to take these issues lightly.
The online format caters to a different learning style than the in-school format as, inevitably, there are minor variations due to time availability and teaching style. The online format is optional and free, when taken during the school year.
Yet variation within Monticello is nothing compared to the wide variation of health classes throughout the nation, particularly when it comes to the topic of sex education.
Only 22 out of 50 states in America are required to teach sex education. 33 out of 50 mandate that schools teach about HIV/AIDS. 19 out of 50 states require that, if taught, sex education needs to be medically and factually accurate. Individual state definitions of what is “medically accurate” vary.
Virginia is not an abstinence-only state, which means Virginia schools legally do not have to promote that abstinence is the only option when it comes to sex, and can teach about birth control. However, even in abstinence-plus states that can teach about birth control and other topics, abstinence is strongly encouraged because it is, undeniably, the safest sex of all.
Within Virginia, private schools take a variety of different approaches to sex education. Religious schools tend to take a more abstinence-only stance, while liberal arts schools branch out a bit more.
The method of abstinence-only sex education was put into place in the hopes that it would deter high school students from having underage sex, and in turn prevent pregnancy and the contraction of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). But studies show that there is no real difference in the number of students that get pregnant in abstinence-only schools or abstinence-plus schools.
Within Monticello, teachers cover STIs very thoroughly, although some students say they did not learn about birth control, while others say they learned about a variety of methods of contraception. The students did learn about healthy relationships, though the laws of consent and the broad issue of consent is not thoroughly covered. The critical message has to do with drugs, alcohol, social issues, and nutrition.
Nutrition is one topic that Health teachers make sure to cover. Students talk about the many components of living a healthy lifestyle. They cover dangers of drugs and alcohol and practice refusal strategies. Students not only learn about STIs, but other serious diseases and how to check for them, like many types of cancers. Mental health is not covered thoroughly in Health class because that is more along the lines of psychology and health teachers can only teach physical health. They can touch on eating disorder, depression, and anxiety, but do not push further than that. However, a highlight on mental health is something that many students would like to see.
Vivian Morris, while speaking on the need for including mental health in the curriculum, said, “Do you realize the amount of high school students that are depressed right now? Or suicidal?”
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 24. (See Kate Walz’s article on mental health)
Another topic that is not touched on at all is anything having to do with LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and plus) topics about sexuality, romantic orientation, or gender identity. Teachers are not obligated to teach the ways a person can have sex, and in Monticello High School, they do not. However, acknowledging that there are different types of attraction to different people is a topic that could potentially normalize LGBTQ+ students. Touching on asexual spectrum (the lack of sexual attraction) and aromantic spectrum (the lack of romantic attraction) would be more inclusive to individuals who identify as such and might be feeling ostracized in a sex education class. (See Kayla Coursey’s article on Safe Spaces)
Gender identity is a whole spectrum in the LGBTQ+ community, and even something as small as using the word “sex” instead of “gender” when referring to anatomy could be inclusive.
However, society has a long way to go until those topics are covered in Monticello’s health class. Alternate means, such as panels, could be made available to any student. This topic is also tricky territory when parents get involved because there are some who would object to such a lesson, despite the more accepting climate of the country and Charlottesville.
While many Health classes do not cover rape, there are other programs that try to cover that, like Help Save the Next Girl. Panels like that help students to hear from a variety of voices.
This year, Ms. Price-Thomas and Mr. McDaniel did something similar. They brought in a speaker to talk about healthy relationships and to teach how to identify abusive relationships. The lesson showed how the signs of abusive are not always consistent and vary from case-to-case.
Truth be told, most of the information taught in health classes (or not taught, but mentioned in this article) can be found online or from other resources. However, online websites are not always reliable. Guardians and children do not always have such open communication. Health classes are good outlets to teach some of the day-to-day topics that are relevant to students’ future lives. It is ultimately up to the student what they do with the information they receive, but just receiving that information can be a large comfort.
At her talk on health relationships, the speaker said that if students took away one thing from her speech she wanted it to occur to them that, “Hey, what I want is important.”