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Rhode Island Department of Education Takes Stand Against Abstinence-Only Program

The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) has prohibited a federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage program from operating in Rhode Island public schools until the program's materials are reviewed. On March 15, 2006, the Commissioner of RIDE, Peter McWalters, sent a letter to all public school superintendents notifying them that Heritage of Rhode Island has not been approved for in-school usage and, if used in public schools, could be violating state law.

Although many reports have suggested that this constitutes a ban of Heritage of Rhode Island from public schools that is not the case.1 The letter explains that the program has not been approved by RIDE's review panel. In the letter, the Commissioner states, “RIDE is not working with Heritage of Rhode Island, nor does RIDE endorse its curriculum as meeting state standards. Heritage of Rhode Island has been marketing at least one sex-education curriculum despite the fact that this program is not approved by the HIV/AIDS Material Review Panel at RIDE.” The letter further states that any school that participates in a student survey designed by Heritage of Rhode Island is violating a state law regarding students' privacy.2

Heritage of Rhode Island currently receives a federal grant of over $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The money comes from the Community-Based Abstinence Education program, the most restrictive of HHS' three federal funding streams for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.3

The Rhode Island ACLU brought attention to this program last year by raising concerns that Heritage's curricula reinforced gender stereotypes. “The curriculum had these incredible sexist viewpoints about men and women and boys and girls that seemed to come out of the nineteenth century,” said Steven Brown, executive director of Rhode Island ACLU.4 School districts also raised concerns. Pawtucket Schools Superintendent Hans Dellith stated, “we really don't promulgate any religious opinion in this school system. I think basically that's what they were trying to do here.”5

SIECUS reviewed one of the curricula created by Heritage of Rhode Island's parent organization, Heritage Community Services of South Carolina. We found that it seeks to instill fear and shame in young people, leaves out critical sexual health information, and presents biases and stereotypes as fact. The materials fail to include information on sexuality-related topics such as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), condoms, contraception, sexual orientation, or options for responding to pregnancy. Instead, the materials rely on clearly biased questions such as “How do you think you would feel watching someone you love get AIDS and die?” and “Why is it likely that weak people would choose risky behaviors, like drugs, alcohol, sex outside of marriage, or violence?”6 to scare and shame young people into abstaining from sex.

In addition, the curriculum presents gender stereotypes as true and depicts non-traditional families as troubled. For example, it states “for a girl [practicing abstinence] may mean moving a boy's hand. For a boy it may mean resisting a lonely girl's need for affection.” The curriculum also cites statistics to support marriage such as “a divorced male is 3.4 times more likely to die from any cause than a married male, and a divorced female is twice as likely to die from any cause than her married counterpart.”7

Late last year, Heritage programs were banned from Maine public schools by that state's Commissioner of Education due to similar concerns. Still, Heritage of Rhode Island, like Heritage of Maine, will likely find avenues other than the public schools to disseminate its program. Heritage materials also continue to be used in other states, including Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky.

References

  1. Conversation between RIDE staff and SIECUS staff, April 2006.
  2. Rhode Island Department of Education, “Rhode Island Department of Education Oversight of Health Programs Pursuant to State and Regulation,” Memo published 15 March 2006 .
  3. It Gets Worse: A Revamped Federal Abstinence-Only Program Goes Extreme ¸ SIECUS, 16 February 2006 , accessed online 21 April 2006 <http://www.siecus.org/policy/Revamped_Abstinence-Only_Goes_Extreme.pdf>.
  4. John Catelucci, “ State says no to sex-education program: Objections to the program had been raised by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the program promoted sexist stereotypes,” The Providence Journal, 23 March 2006, accessed 13 April 2006, <http://www.projo.com/education/content/projo_20060323_risexed23.daf84cc.html>.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Anne Badgley, MEd and Carrie Musselman, Heritage Keepers (Charleston, SC: Heritage Community Services, 1997,98,99).
  7. Ibid.

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