UPDATED Minnesota: Private School Takes a Controversial Adult Novelty Store Field Trip

By Rachel Cultice, SIECUS Program Research Intern

A Minneapolis private school finds itself reconsidering its field trip permission policy after a class trip to a local adult novelty store caused parent complaints during the final week of May 2015. Gaia Democratic School, with a small, diverse student body, promotes a teaching philosophy prioritizing “holistic education and holistic healing” through an emphasis on student freedom. “Free schools work holistically because of intrinsic desire for knowledge and internal motivation,” explains Starri Hedges, who is both the teacher of the school’s sexuality education class and the school’s director. [1]  

Hedges, coordinator of the field trip, brought approximately a dozen middle and high school students (of the school’s 25 total) to a local sex toy store, Smitten Kitten, as the culmination of the school’s sexual health class. Smitten Kitten, “a progressive sex toy store for everyone,” offers educational workshops in addition to selling merchandise. Jennifer Pritchett, owner of Smitten Kitten, describes her store as “an educational resource about sex and sexuality.” Hedges explained that the field trip provided the students with the opportunity to hear from educators about how to practice safer sex and that some students purchased condoms, even though the school gives them to students for free. [2], [3]

This field trip resulted in complaints from several parents, some of whom pulled their children (eight, in total) from the school as a result of the trip. Claiming that the trip was not age-appropriate for their children, the parents contended that they had no knowledge of the trip before it occurred. [4]

At the Gaia Democratic School, parents sign an open permission slip at the beginning of the school year, meaning that permission slips are not required for each individual field trip taken by the students.[5] The school is now discussing a possible change to this policy, given the reactions of some parents to this particular trip. Explaining more about free schools, Hedges said:

“The whole point of the field trip was, the kids asked for it so I arranged it. […] At a free school, that’s what teachers are supposed to do. We’re supposed to help kids access the resources that they want. I didn’t actually think of this field trip as different as any other field trips.”[6]

Hedges claims that while in Smitten Kitten, students were situated in the “library section of the store,” where although sex toys/products were visible, pornographic items were out of sight and clarified that the goal of the field trip was to allow students to learn about human sexuality in a secure and positive setting.[7] Following the field trip, the Gaia Democratic School faced threats, received hate mail, and even cancelled an upcoming, unrelated field trip to protect students from potential media encounters.[8]

Parent Lynn Floyd filed a police report “accusing the school's leadership of exposing minors to pornographic material,” and may also file a lawsuit against the school. Floyd, at first in full support of the private school’s unique values, has now pulled his three children from the school, claiming that this trip went too far. “I wanted our children to grow up and remain children as long as possible.”[9]

A license inspector and zoning inspector, both sent to Smitten Kitten by city officials after news of this field trip, have cited the store with code violations, stating that “the store did not isolate sexually explicit materials in a separate section of the shop, as required by city code, […]” and that there was “sexually explicit materials within view of minors, which is also a violation.” Smitten Kitten is required to rearrange the store to comply with zoning rules, having been given no further penalty.[10]

The school values its small student population, ensuring that each student receives the individual attention needed for their success. Losing students, such as those who left as a result of this field trip, can shake the student community and break friendships. Parent Autumn McDonald Cunningham explains that parents are drawn to Gaia Democratic School because it allows students to have a say in what they learn; comprehensive sexuality education was something students had specifically asked for. She said that in a discussion after the trip, students reported feeling “educated and empowered,” and were able to ask important questions about their bodies, health, and safe sex. McDonald Cunningham’s daughter, 11 years old, was one of the students who purchased condoms:

“My daughter said when she is old enough, she knows where to buy them without judgement. […] She actually blew them up into balloons because you know, she’s still a kid. But she’s proud to have done it just to say she’s done it.”[11]

Hedges, having prior experience in HIV testing and counseling, understands the importance of both sexuality education and the freedom of her students: “Here at Gaia, we tend to put the students’ consent first, which is not to say that we don't respect parents or want their support, but because they also trust their kids. […] Our 11-year-olds are very intelligent. They’re not ignorant children.”[12]

In a public statement addressing the controversy, the school’s Board of Directors supported the trip, expressing that misinformation about the trip has been spread, and writing:

“[…] Smitten Kitten specializes in sexual education that provides literature, classes, products and protection for people of all sexualities and points along the gender spectrum. It is a nationally recognized leader in the promotion of safer sex supplies and human sexuality. […] We understand that sexuality is a complex and sensitive issue, which is why it is important to offer students access to accurate information and resources. We are proud to be a school that encourages health and is inclusive of all.[13]

Hedges has announced that this trip will most likely be the last of its type, although also acknowledging that she found the trip to be a success: “[…] the kids had so much fun.”[14]

Although noting that Gaia Democratic School is a private school, meaning that it does not have to comply with state standards, a representative of the Minnesota Department of Education offered his personal opinion: “I don’t think anybody would think that going to the Smitten Kitten is a great idea.”[15]


[1] Starri Hedges, “Free Schools: Healing and Learning Through the Practice of Freedom,” St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, Fall 2005, accessed June 4, 2015 at www.gaiademocratic.org/uploads/freeschoolshealinglearning.pdf.

[2] Nicole Norfleet, “Mpls. private school takes students to adult novelty store for sex ed lesson,” Star Tribune, June 2 2015, accessed June 4, 2015 at m.startribune.com/local/minneapolis/305770831.html.

[3] Susan Du, "Teacher Starri Hedges Speaks Out About Sex Shop Field Trip," City Pages, June 29, 2015, Accessed on July 1, 2015, at www.citypages.com/news/teacher-starri-hedges-speaks-out-about-sex-shop-field-trip-7441954.

[4] Reg Chapman, “After Sex Shop Field Trip, School Loses More Students,” CBS Minnesota, June 3, 2015, accessed on June 4, 2015 at minnesota.cbslocal.com/2015/06/03/after-sex-shop-field-trip-school-loses-more-students/.

[5] Du, “Teacher Starri Hedges Speaks…”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Norfleet, “Mpls. private school takes students to…”

[8] Du, “Teacher Starri Hedges Speaks…”

[9] Jonathan Choe,Dad files police report over school trip to Smitten Kitten sex toy store,” KMSP-TV, June 3, 2015, updated June 4, 2015, accessed June 4, 2015 at www.myfoxtwincities.com/story/29234538/parents-not-amused-by-school-field-trip-to-sex-toy-store-smitten-kitten.

[10] Nicole Norfleet, “After students’ visit, inspectors say sex toy store violated city code,” Star Tribune, June 2, 2015, accessed June 4, 2015 at www.startribune.com/after-students-visit-minneapolis-inspectors-say-smitten-kitten-sex-toy-store-violated-city-code/305892001/.

[11] Du, “Teacher Starri Hedges Speaks…”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Public Statement from Gaia Democratic School’s Board of Directors, June 3, 2015, accessed June 4, 2015 at www.gaiademocratic.org/uploads/SKpressrelease2015.pdf.

[14] Norfleet, “Mpls. private school takes students to…”

[15] Ibid.

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