Public schools located in former Catholic school buildings will have to find another place to teach newly required sex education.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott surprised principals last night with the news that sex education will be mandatory in middle and high schools starting this year—a decision the New York Civil Liberties Union called “a great step forward for students’ health.”

For schools that operate in space leased from the Archdiocese of New York, the new requirement could induce a scheduling headache. A Department of Education spokeswoman, Barbara Morgan, confirmed that those schools would have to conduct the sex education lessons off-site in accordance with the archdiocese’s longstanding policy prohibiting sex education in space that it owns.

As Catholic schools have lost students in recent years, the archdiocese has closed dozens of schools, including 27 this year. The city has then rented some of those buildings to relieve its own space crunch. Last year, when the city decided to rent the former Saint Michael’s Academy to house the Clinton School for Artists and Writers, it noted that students would have to return to the school’s previous site for sex education.

Fran Davies, education spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said today that church officials were still researching the issue.

Most public schools housed in rented former Catholic school space are elementary schools, which are not affected by the new requirement. But at least a few middle and high schools, like West Brooklyn Community High School and El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Williamsburg, will have to make other plans if they haven’t already.

The city already has solutions for some of those schools, Morgan said. At John Adams High School in Queens, for example, ninth-graders are taught in an annex leased from the archdiocese. Those students would move into the school’s main building for sex education lessons, or wait until 10th grade to take the required health class, Morgan said. Walcott’s announcement said that schools could fulfill the new requirement within the semester-long health classes that are already required in middle and high schools.

But it remains unclear where students in archdiocese-owned buildings without a secondary facility will go for the sex education component of those classes.

The full message that Walcott sent to principals last night is below.

Dear Colleagues,

Last week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg unveiled the City’s Young Men’s Initiative (YMI), a comprehensive, three-year action plan to confront racial and ethnic disparities among young men in New York City.

The plan includes policy reforms and coordination across multiple city agencies, and is one of the most ambitious efforts ever undertaken to improve outcomes for black and Latino young men.

Over the next three years, the City will invest more than $127 million—including $60 million in private philanthropy—in programs and policies that target the areas of greatest disparity and need.

The Department of Education will play a key role in the success of the Young Men’s Initiative, including working on new efforts to close the racial achievement gap and help black and Latino boys reach their full academic potential. The DOE will also have new and increased responsibility for educating our students about sexual activity and the associated health risks.

As you know, New York State currently requires a one-semester, daily health education course in both middle and high school, but does not mandate sex education. While many of our schools have already voluntarily taken steps to include sex education in their curriculum, some have not, leaving us with an uneven system that I believe does not serve our students well.

When I first began working on the Young Men’s Initiative during my time as Deputy Mayor, I saw some very troubling statistics about our students’ levels of sexual activity and their health risks. We have students who are having sex before the age of 13; students who have had multiple sexual partners; and students who aren’t protecting themselves against sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. As a parent and a grandparent—and as the person responsible for ensuring that all of our public school students receive a high-quality education—that is very concerning.

I believe the school system has an important role to play with regard to educating our children about sex and the potential consequences of engaging in risky behavior. That is why, starting in the second semester of the upcoming 2011-2012 school year, we will be requiring both middle schools and high schools to include sex education lessons in their health curriculum.

Specifically, NYC public middle and high school students must receive sex education lessons during one semester in both middle and high school. Schools will have flexibility and support in deciding how to incorporate these lessons into their current health curriculum, as well as discretion as to which grade to offer the lessons. But we are strongly recommending that health instruction take place in 6th or 7th grade in middle school, and in 9th or 10th grade in high school.

We must be committed to ensuring that both middle school and high school students are exposed to this valuable information so they can learn to keep themselves safe before, and when, they decide to have sex.

As with our HIV/AIDS curriculum, we will offer a parental opt-out on specific lessons involving prevention and birth control. In the coming weeks, we will be providing you with information you can share with parents to that end.

As in the past, we are recommending The HealthSmart curriculum for middle schools. For high schools, we recommend adding the Reducing the Risk curriculum. You can find more information on the curriculum at this Web site.

The DOE’s Office of School Wellness Programs (OSWP) will be providing free trainings and curriculum to teachers and administrators starting in the first week of September. In addition, network staff will be available in the coming months to provide direct technical assistance to schools and answer additional questions you may have about programming and certification requirements.

This is a new policy, and it will take time to get ready for its implementation. Rest assured, we will work closely with you in the coming weeks and months to help ensure schools are prepared.

But I strongly believe this policy is overdue for our school system. I have always believed that parents should have the right to opt-out of certain sex education lessons such as conversations on prevention and birth control, as they will in this case. But I also feel we have a responsibility to offer our students access to information that will keep them safe and healthy.

I look forward to working with you and with our parents and teachers and partners in the greater school community to ensure this initiative is a success.

Sincerely,

Dennis M. Walcott