Controversy Report: 2007-08 School Year
MOVING TOWARD A NEW PARADIGM:
Communities Increase Access to Sexuality Education, but Some Stumbling Blocks Remain
Controversy Report 2007-08 School Year
by Maxwell Ciardullo, Information Coordinator
with assistance from Maya Dusenbery, Community Advocacy Intern
SIECUS is happy to report that during the last full school year under the George W. Bush administration, communities across the country continued to move away from abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, the 43rd President’s preferred approach to sex education. As we noted in last year’s Controversy Report, abstinence-only-until-marriage programming has most likely passed its peak in political power and the sexuality education pendulum has begun to swing back toward more comprehensive programs that discuss both abstinence and contraception.
Parents, students, and health officials have called on districts to abandon their abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. And, many districts have created or expanded their sexuality education programs with widespread support from parents and community members. State lawmakers have also played a part in supporting or compelling local districts to take up the issue of sexuality education and move toward more medically accurate, comprehensive approaches.
And, as always, students have been extremely important advocates this year as well. Whether defending censored books and school newspapers or fighting for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) students, they have made impassioned arguments for respectful treatment and access to information about their bodies and their sexuality.
SIECUS has been tracking controversies regarding sexuality education for over 15 years and are pleased that the positive trends we’ve noticed over the past few years seem to be continuing and growing. However, we believe that it is important not only to note the controversies and outcomes but also to look at how these positive decisions came about.
This special report provides examples of the types of controversies communities faced during the 2007–08 school year as well as ongoing analysis that attempts to put each controversy into a broader perspective both historically and moving forward. As you will see, a variety of forces and arguments moved communities this year.
MOVING TOWARD MORE INFORMATION, BUT MOTIVATED BY PANIC
Advocates for more comprehensive sexuality education won a number of key fights this year, but their path to these wins has been a complicated one. More often than not, it seems that these communities are motivated not by their belief that comprehensive sexuality education can be a productive and positive force in young peoples’ lives, but instead by the fear of teen sex, STDs, and unintended pregnancy. These fears were only buoyed this year by a number of high profile news stories focusing on young people and sex. In addition to stories about the pregnancies of Jamie Lynn Spears and Bristol Palin, parents, educators, and teens also heard alarming statistics about a teen birth rate on the rise, higher HIV incidence numbers in youth, and high rates of STDs in teenage girls.
In communities where teen sex and sexuality is difficult to discuss, these numbers and personal stories took center stage. Advocates built their case around the argument that without information about contraceptives, the statistics would only get worse. Sexuality education was framed as “disaster prevention” and many districts discarded abstinence-only programs and successfully implemented more comprehensive curricula in hopes of arresting rates of teen pregnancy, STDs and teen sex.
The Gloucester, MA story made the biggest headlines and was perhaps one of the clearest cases of startling and frightening statistics aiding the argument for more comprehensive sexuality education. In the spring of 2008, school officials reported a spike in teen pregnancies at the local high school in this small, conservative fishing town north of Boston. With seventeen students reported pregnant by the end of May 2008—a four-fold increase from previous years—rumors began to circulate about a possible “pregnancy pact” made by at least some of the expectant mothers.
Gloucester High officials reported that students had begun lining up to take pregnancy tests at the school-based health clinic in fall 2007. When the spike in pregnancies became clear in early 2008, the high school’s school-based health center proposed offering confidential contraception. Clinic staff noted that the only other place where young women could acquire birth control confidentially was almost fifteen miles away.
The clinicians’ proposal, however, was met with some hostility as the hospital that runs the clinic worried about liability issues and Mayor Carolyn Kirk objected, saying the health center staff “have no right to decide this for our children.”
In the midst of the community’s debate about making contraceptives available, the story broke onto the national scene after the principal gave an interview to a Time reporter indicating that he thought many of the young women intended to get pregnant. Speculation about a “pregnancy pact” engendered an instant media frenzy and derailed the district’s plans as pundits, advocacy organizations, and news outlets weighed in with their opinions of what went wrong.
Months later, after some of the dust had settled, the school revisited its proposal to allow students access to and education about contraception at the school clinic. In October 2008, the School Committee voted unanimously to allow students to access contraception. The new policy, which the school board is expected to finalize soon, allows parents to remove their children from the contraception availability program.
Some members of the board were still uncertain about allowing students access to the birth control pill, but eventually agreed. The superintendent seemed to sum up many peoples feelings when he said, “People are increasingly realizing the lives of adolescents now are very complex; we have a significant number of teenagers who are sexually active.”
In an ongoing controversy in St. Lucie County, FL, advocates for more comprehensive sexuality education have also used local statistics and a disaster-prevention frame to bolster their argument. Since health officials announced in 2006 that St. Lucie County has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS among blacks in any Florida county, advocates for a new AIDS curriculum have made the case that it is necessary to save lives.
After the statistics were released, the St. Lucie Department of Education, health professionals, and community members came together to form an executive roundtable to explore the possibility of replacing the public schools’ abstinence-only-until-marriage program with an HIV/AIDS prevention program. The executive roundtable recommended the Get Real About AIDS program, and, after extensive debate, the school board approved it in December 2007 by a 4–1 vote. The board voted again in May 2008 to approve the last piece of the program, a locally produced condom demonstration video to be used in eighth grade and high schools classes.
Selected lessons from the new curriculum will be taught in fourth through twelfth grades. While lessons for eighth graders and high school students include information on correct condom use, officials have assured parents that instruction will still focus on abstinence, and “alternative lifestyles” will not be discussed.
Despite these concessions, opposition to the curriculum has been fierce. A local pastor worried that the program promotes condoms too readily and that “an agenda such as this one could not encourage abstinence.” He began a petition to prevent the program from being implemented and has threatened to campaign against school board members who voted for the program.
To counter these arguments, supporters of the program have framed the issue as one of life or death because of the county’s high HIV/AIDS rates. In response to criticism of the program at a school board meeting, one board member answered back “I have to think that as we sit here talking about it, children are dying.” The editorial board of one of the local papers also recognized that many parents may be reluctant to accept that their teens are sexually active, but urged its readers to welcome the “well-considered curriculum” and video. It pointed to “far too many unwanted pregnancies and a tragically high rate of HIV/AIDS infections,” as reasons for parents to educate young people about the consequences of sex.
Communities in other southern states like Georgia and North Carolina were also swayed by the disaster-prevention argument this year.
In Athens, GA, a broad coalition of parents, young people, health professionals, and school district officials convinced the school board to abandon its abstinence-only-until-marriage policy and adopt a new program that includes discussion of contraception. Their arguments for more comprehensive sexuality education relied on data showing that the area’s teen pregnancy rate was disproportionately high and that two thirds of students were sexually active by the time they left high school.
One 16-year-old student put a face on the statistics when he told the school board that he might have avoided becoming a teen father if he had learned more about birth control before he became sexually active. A retired doctor who headed the committee that recommended the new policy echoed his call to provide more information and help students avoid negative outcomes. “We don’t help [students] deal with something that could literally kill them if they get HIV,” she said.
The old board policy, which dated from 1992, barred teaching about any sexual practice other than abstinence-until-marriage. The new “abstinence first” policy, which was approved 7–1 by the school board in January 2008, will now allow classroom discussions on birth control, planned parenting, risky sexual behavior, and sexual violence prevention.
With compelling personal stories, warnings, and startling statistics, advocates in Athens passed a more comprehensive policy with little opposition. Health officials and advocates in Robeson County, NC, however, have not had such an easy path. Similar messaging in their rural county has raised attention around sex education, but the school board has yet to take up the issue.
Of 100 counties in North Carolina, Robeson County ranks 11th in teen pregnancy rates. In 2006, 446 girls between the ages of 12 and 19 gave birth in the county. The Health Department in Robeson received an $11,000 grant from the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Coalition of North Carolina to increase awareness of how comprehensive sex education can help to lower the county’s teen pregnancy rates. Robeson health officials formed the group Creating Health Advocates Through Schools (CHATS) to get this information to the public. CHATS conducted community and student surveys in December 2007 about comprehensive sex education in schools that will be presented to the school board.
The effort to bring comprehensive sexuality education into the schools is facing some opposition, however. State law requires that sexuality education classes take an abstinence-only-until-marriage approach, though it is left up to the individual school districts to implement their own curricula. It is possible for local school districts to teach comprehensive sexuality education, but only if a public hearing on the issue is held. This complicated system of shared control and requirements is confusing to some districts.
Despite the red tape, advocates like State Representative Garland Pierce have raised the profile of this issue by connecting it to teen pregnancies and STDs. “Girls are getting pregnant at an early age, and then there is the risk of getting a disease,” said Pierce, who has sponsored legislation that would allow districts to teach comprehensive sexuality education with fewer barriers. “At some point you have to take your head out of the sand and see you the reality. There are nearly 500 teenagers who have had babies in Robeson County. Either you learn it from the bathroom or from your friends, or learn it from the professionals who will teach the real deal.”
School health officials and representatives from CHATS are continuing their grassroots efforts to bring comprehensive sexuality education to Robeson, but the school board has not yet responded.
In Washington, D.C. schools the sexuality education program had not been a priority for years, but staggering HIV/AIDS rates in the city brought the issue into focus and consequently, brought the detractors of comprehensive sexuality education out to voice their concerns.
The debate over sexuality education began when the D.C. Appleseed Center, a local nonprofit, issued a report in 2005 showing that D.C. had an HIV prevalence on par with some Sub-Saharan African countries. The report recommended that D.C. public schools prioritize HIV-prevention education. As a result, Mayor Adrian Fenty requested the creation of new guidelines for sexuality education classes in the District.
The new guidelines cover wide topics of health education, and only a small number of controversial sexuality education pieces. They would require that sixth graders be taught that all people, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity, have sexual feelings and the need for love, affection, and physical intimacy. In eighth grade, students would be taught the definition of sexual orientation using accurate terminology, and would be taught that some people feel sexually attracted to individuals of their own sex. In ninth grade, students would analyze trends in contraceptive practices and be educated about abortion.
On November 29, 2007 more than 30 members from the community including teachers, parents, and religious leaders, testified before a State Board of Education hearing on the new guidelines. While most of the community members who testified supported the guidelines, some religious figures argued that teaching about contraceptives or sexual orientation gives implicit approval to teen sex or homosexuality, which one Reverend called “a deviation from the natural order of things.”
School administrators have also had to contend with the criticism of local abstinence-only groups, worried that the new guidelines might keep them out of the schools, and the editorial page of the conservative Washington Times. That paper has argued that the D.C. schools can’t be trusted with sex education and that the health program should stick to health and nutrition.
Despite the criticism, the State Board of Education approved the new health standards in December 2007. D.C. Public Schools’ Office of Teaching and Learning has also approved three evidenced-based HIV-prevention curricula recognized by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The city is using the newly selected curricula for the 2008–09 school year and determining any modifications for the following year.
District officials in Fonda and Fultonville, NY worked through similar challenges when they proposed a new sexuality education program for seventh and eighth graders. Like in D.C., school district officials were compelled to act by alarming statistics. The county has the second highest teen pregnancy rate (42 per 1,000 among youth ages 15–19) in the state, second only to the Bronx.
The proposed program would discuss sexual decision-making, including a risk-benefit analysis of abstinence and sexual activity, birth control methods, prevention and transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, and building healthy relationships. Educators from Planned Parenthood will be presenting the lessons.
The district’s sense of urgency was met with mixed emotions during a meeting in April 2008. One father was wary of the educators, fearing that inviting Planned Parenthood to instruct puts the schools on a “slippery slope” towards birth control distribution. In contrast, a mother was surprised that the district lacked such an education program and was supportive of the curriculum. “I always thought that my child was being taught, on some level, about this,” she said.
Detractors of the program have set up a website, www.notinourschool.com, which argues that Planned Parenthood is a business and therefore has biases and can’t be trusted. Parents have also cited some Planned Parenthood material on masturbation in their arguments against the program, referring to the material as “quite unconscionable.”
Administrators responded to the objections by assuring parents that the lessons are intended to supplement the messages families are already giving their children, not replace them. “Our goal is not at all to try to take over those conversations with your children,” said one middle school principal. They did not, however, slow down their implementation timeline. Planned Parenthood educators began in the middle schools in Spring 2008. The superintendent reported that 30 out of 105 total students have been removed from the seventh grade instruction by their parents and only six out of more than 90 students have been removed from the eighth grade instruction.
In each of these communities, advocates stressed the consequences of restricting information about contraception to counter what were often conservative conversations about what sexuality education is appropriate for young people. They relied on alarming science and statistics about teen sex, teen pregnancy rates, and HIV and STD prevalence to make convincing arguments for more comprehensive programs. The trend is a complicated one though. While it often results in students getting more information about condoms or contraception, it relies on a framework that limits the goal of sex education to disaster prevention. What can then get lost is the more nuanced argument that sexuality education is always necessary, crisis or not, because it provides young people with a space to discuss the myriad issues of body image, dating, sex, and sexuality that they confront in their daily lives and the tools to help them make healthy decision about those issues.
In addition, this viewpoint seems to hold sex education alone accountable for lowering rates of teen pregnancy, sexual activity, and STDs when it’s almost certain that these behaviors and outcomes are the result of a host of other structural factors like lack of economic opportunity, limited access to health care, gender stereotypes, and homophobia. Universal healthcare and many other social programs are necessary to combat these intersecting problems; still advocates have taken important steps this school year toward implementing one necessary piece of the puzzle: comprehensive sexuality education.
MOVING TOWARD WIDESPREAD COMPREHENSIVE SEXUALITY EDUCATION WITH HELP FROM STATE LAWMAKERS
A number of other local districts were spurred to take steps in the right direction this year because of policy changes at the state level. Despite the fact that most states prefer to allow local school districts to retain control of curriculum decisions, one of the things that we have learned from monitoring controversies for the past fifteen years is that federal, state, and local policy are all connected. Some of the recent changes in sexuality education policy on the state level have made this even more apparent. Ten states chose not to apply for federal Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage funds in the past year. Each state that pulls out of the program affects federal policy, as advocates make the case that fewer and fewer communities have any interest in abstinence-only programming. Furthermore, when states choose not to accept federal money—and eliminate the matching state funds—local school districts are often forced to pay for or do without abstinence-only programming that they were previously receiving for free from federally and state-funded community groups.
The most direct impact a state can have, however, comes in the form of new policies. When states change their sexuality education policy, local districts feel the effect. A number of states passed new laws or education standards this year that encourage medically accurate and more comprehensive sexuality education. Some of these laws and standards may even be interpreted to prohibit abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. As a result, we watched some local districts grapple with updating their sexuality education policies to meet new state standards this year.
In Illinois and Virginia, state-level decisions to cut abstinence-only-until-marriage funding forced local school districts to rethink their sexuality education. In early 2008, the school board in Springfield, IL learned that that the price of its abstinence-only program would be increasing. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich had cut state funding for Project Reality, one of the oldest abstinence-only-until-marriage organizations, which distributes the fear- and shame-based Game Plan and Navigator curricula nationwide. 
For years, Project Reality had supplied school districts throughout Illinois with free workbooks. With the state cuts, the Springfield school district suddenly discovered it would now have to purchase the materials itself. A school board discussion of how to pay for the Game Plan workbooks quickly gave way to questions about whether the curriculum was adequate to begin with and whether the district was required by state law to adhere to an abstinence-only policy. District officials initially said that they believed the abstinence-only policy was a state requirement. However, the Illinois State Board of Education stepped in to challenge that characterization, saying that while state law requires schools’ sexuality education to stress abstinence, Springfield’s curriculum was more limited than necessary. With that understanding, the school board nearly unanimously decided to abandon the old curriculum and develop a comprehensive program that will comply with Illinois state law by stressing abstinence, but will also teach about safe-sex and contraception.
Similarly, in October 2007, Virginia’s Governor Tim Kaine announced that his state would not apply for Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage federal funds and cut the $275,000 that the state would have had to allocate for abstinence-only programs to match the Title V grant. While Gov. Kaine was facing a severe budget shortfall, his decision was not a purely financial one. According to his spokesperson, it was also based on “a couple of studies that have shown that abstinence-only does not work.”
In Prince William County, VA, the school board met to discuss how the governor’s decision would affect the local Keep It Simple-Say No (KISSN) abstinence-only program. For four years the district had received trainers at no cost from another county. But with the state cuts, the district had to consider future of the program if the trainers could no longer provide services for free. Although officials felt the financial impact would not be felt immediately, the governor’s clear rejection of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs was already stirring up the political debate on sexuality education, with groups on both sides weighing in.
Meanwhile, local districts in Colorado, Washington, and New Mexico were spurred to move toward more comprehensive sexuality education when state standards were updated.
In Colorado, House Bill 1292, which established content standards for sex education taught in public schools, was passed and signed into effect on July 1, 2007. Under the new law, schools are not required to teach sex education, but if they do, they must follow a science-based curriculum that includes information on contraception. The law requires that programs continue to emphasize abstinence and allow parents to opt their children out of the classes. It also explicitly exempts schools that receive federal funds for abstinence-only education.
The St. Vrain Valley School District in St. Vrain, CO responded to the new state law by expanding its sexuality education curriculum to include a one-day discussion of birth control in ninth grade health classes. At the urging of public health experts, the school board had also considered providing a condom demonstration in the new curriculum, but after seeing the proposed lesson decided against it. While health officials warned that the curriculum still does not provide students with the skills they need to be healthy, the vice president of the board noted, “I think we’ve come a long ways from where the district was to where it’s going to be…At least the district’s moving in the right direction.”
School district officials in Brighton, COdecided to add information to make the curriculum, which was last revised in 2004, more up-to-date despite the fact that it was already in alignment with the new law.
In Washington State, the Healthy Youth Act, passed in 2007, requires school districts that offer sex education to use a curriculum that is medically and scientifically accurate, age-appropriate, non-discriminatory, and includes information on abstinence and other methods of preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. As a result, school boards throughout the state met to review their programs and ensure that they were in compliance with the new standards, which went into effect on September 1, 2008.
In November 2007, the Kelso, WA school district adopted a new ninth-grade sex education program called “Prevention of Teenage Pregnancy” based on the state’s guidelines. Developed by a local gynecologist and member of the district’s health committee, the curriculum covers seven types of contraception, including abstinence. The district had already adopted the KNOW HIV/STD Prevention Curriculum—a voluntary curriculum provided by the state—in the spring of 2006.
In Bremerton, WA, the school district abandoned its abstinence-only policy in December 2007, bringing it in line with four other districts in the area that had already complied with the new state law. Bremerton High School had been teaching an abstinence-only curriculum since 1999 when it replaced the district’s previous comprehensive program. District officials were generally happy to return to a more comprehensive curriculum and said that, with high turnover rates among district officials, the abstinence-only policy had simply never been questioned until the new state law took effect and forced them to review it.
The Ellensburg, WA school board met in February 2008 to review its sexuality education policy. After weighing various options, the board ultimately voted 4–1 to adopt a policy that would bring the district into compliance with the new state law, while retaining the right to decide if the district will offer sex education at all. The board also pledged to include community groups and parents in the development process.
New Mexico didn’t pass a law, but did update its state education standards in early 2007 to require comprehensive sexuality education in grades seven and up. For the Socorro County, NM school district, the change meant updating its curriculum to include more information about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases or losing funding from the state. In October 2007, educators from the district’s sexuality education provider, the Socorro General Hospital Healthy Families Initiative, presented their new curriculum for 9th and 11th graders to the school board. The proposed sessions would cover birth control methods and effectiveness and the effects and treatment of various sexually transmitted diseases.
These state policy changes helped to nudge a number of districts to drop their abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and add more comprehensive lessons. The mere fact of a policy change spurs many communities to re-examine the sexuality education in their schools. Moreover, many of the policy changes put in place this year favored a more comprehensive approach to sexuality education.
MOVING TOWARD MORE COMPREHENSIVE PROGRAMMING BY CHALLENGING ABSTINENCE-ONLY
While some communities move toward comprehensive sexuality education because of a new state policy or a fear of health outcomes, other communities did so during the 2007–08 school year out of a growing sense that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are simply not the way to go.
In Fremont, CA, abstinence-only-until-marriage programming fell under more intense scrutiny after the local news station, with the help of a parent from a neighboring school district, began to investigate the sex education programming in the junior high schools. Reporters found that the program was flouting state law, which requires schools that choose to discuss sexuality education to provide comprehensive, age-appropriate, and medically accurate information. In light of this discovery, parents and the school district reviewed what young people were learning and the school board voted to implement a more comprehensive program by January 2009.
The parent of a middle school student in neighboring Concord, CA aided the news team in its discovery of the abstinence-only programs. She explained that she was initially happy to learn that her son’s school was providing sex education classes, and was “completely comfortable” with her son learning about pregnancy and STD-prevention methods. Then, she found that the curriculum was taught by Christian evangelists and would cover only abstinence. She was successful in barring the organization from her son’s school in 2004 and was happy to share information when it became clear that a similar organization was operating in Fremont schools.
Fremont junior highs were using a program developed by Await and Find, which is the recipient of a federal grant under the Community-Based Abstinence Education funding stream. As such, the program is required to follow a strict definition of “abstinence education” that clearly does not fit with California’s comprehensive law. When district officials learned of the program, they asked the Public Health Institute, a California-based non-profit that specializes in research and training, to review Await and Find’s program.
The review found that among other problems, the program intended to scare students away from sex by using exaggerated failure rates for condoms and contraception. The Fremont district director was distressed by the findings. “I think the implication is that [students and parents are] being deceived. And I don’t ever want anyone to be deceived,” he said.
The California Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Education Act explicitly states that if a school opts to teach sex education beyond the HIV/AIDS requirement, it must discuss the diversity of pregnancy and STD prevention methods as well as “encourage a pupil to develop healthy attitudes concerning adolescent growth and development, body image, gender roles, sexual orientation, dating, marriage, and family.”
In June 2008, four months after the local news station broke the story, the school board instructed the district’s health and sex education advisory committee to recommend a new, more comprehensive curriculum for junior highs. The incident also encouraged the district to review its ninth grade curriculum for similar problems.
In Pasco County, FL, district officials recognized and rejected an abstinence-only program before it could gain a hold in the schools. A Hernando-based Christian ministry, A New Generation, approached the superintendent with an offer of abstinence-themed assemblies as well as a full curriculum.
Despite being one of the only districts in the area not offering abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, the superintendent declined. After reviewing the program, the assistant superintendent explained that he found the curriculum already in place in Pasco schools to be “more comprehensive and well rounded.” “We listened, but I can’t really see there’s anything that will make us change from our School Board-approved plan,” he said.
Though other districts did not take such immediate or supportive actions, parents in many communities have continued to demand more informative programs for their children. Pittsburgh, PA parents have been leaders on this front, putting pressure on their school district through petitions and media attention.
The controversy started when a number of parents, concerned that the schools were not teaching enough, approached the school board insisting on a comprehensive curriculum. When one parent asked whether her child would hear the word “condom” during her sex education class, a school official replied “no.” The board promised to implement a task force to consider the matter but did not follow through.
In response, two of the parents created an online petition demanding comprehensive sexuality education and an end to the abstinence-only approach. The petition reads, in part: “In Pittsburgh Public Schools, teens aren’t receiving the information they need to make healthy and responsible life decisions.” It criticizes the curriculum for trying to scare students from sex, and for promoting a married, heterosexual lifestyle as the standard of behavior. The petition summons community members to press the school board for a curriculum that “stresses the importance of waiting to have sex while providing medically accurate, age-appropriate, information about how to use contraceptives effectively to prevent unintended pregnancies and STDs, including HIV/AIDS.” Over 200 parents signed the petition and its authors were interviewed in at least three different local news stories.
“We’re a knowledge-based city and to have children being taught what I consider to be something from the dark ages just shocked me,” one of the petitions co-authors said. Students offered criticism of the program as well. One senior at a Pittsburgh high school described the current curriculum as “too vague to be helpful” and said that fellow students think sex “is just vaginal intercourse.”
One school board member, who has been in office for over thirty years, acknowledged that the district has had nothing other than abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. She thinks teaching abstinence is necessary, though agrees that it should be accompanied by enhanced education about STDs.
The district plans to review the health and physical education curriculum—which includes the sex education curriculum—but did not promise to discard the current abstinence-only-until-marriage program. Officials claim the current curriculum “reflects the city’s conservative mindset.”
Vocal objections to abstinence-only-until-marriage programs continued in other communities as well. In suburban Chicago, for example, another parent spoke out against A.C. Green’s Game Plan, a popular abstinence-only program being used in the middle schools there. The Warrenville, IL parent first saw the Game Plan workbook when her daughter brought it home. She told the board she was particularly distressed by the “inadequate and at times dangerously misleading” information on condoms and contraception. Game Plan tells students that condoms are not effective barriers to many sexually transmitted diseases and that the majority of unintended pregnancies occur among women who use birth control. She finished her speech to the board by asking for them to provide students with “ALL of the tools necessary to help young people make responsible decisions.”
Board members had somewhat partisan reactions, with one Republican member saying that the parent’s beliefs were out of touch with the community and a Democrat responding that her criticism had wide support. The board has not yet acted on the issue, but did clarify that the district takes no federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funding and is therefore not bound to any one curriculum.
The fact that districts and parents are challenging established groups like Await and Find and popular programs like Game Plan especially in states like Florida and Pennsylvania that generally lean toward abstinence-only instruction, is a significant milestone in the history of these programs. SIECUS has reported that in the past few years more communities are challenging abstinence-only programs, and these examples prove that this trend continues. Even if some communities choose to keep abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, it’s clear that abstinence-only groups and advocates have been forced to play more defense than offense this school year.
MOVING TOWARD MORE COMPREHENSIVE SEXUALITY EDUCATION DESPITE PROTESTS
Even in a national climate where public opinion is shifting toward more comprehensive programming, opponents of these programs are not giving up easily. In many communities, they continue to test districts’ resolve with their vocal criticism of comprehensive sexuality education. They’re fighting back, but in many cases they’re losing. In the past few years, more and more communities, bolstered by new research and public health arguments, have stood up to defend their programs.
Perhaps the best organized challenge to an existing HIV- and teen pregnancy-prevention program this year, occurred in Gloucester County, NJ. The Teen Prevention Education Project (Teen PEP) came under fire in February 2008 by abstinence-only-until-marriage proponents at Clearview Regional High School, who threatened to take the school district to court when administrators stood up to their complaints.
Teen PEP is the creation of the Princeton Center for Leadership Training, HiTOPS, Inc., and the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. At Clearview Regional High School the program trains juniors and seniors to educate their freshman schoolmates on matters related to sexuality—this year’s topics include abstinence, HIV/AIDS, sexual violence, dating, alcohol, and drugs. The course is an elective health class. Students in certain freshman classes, whose parents have given permission, attend five workshops conducted by teacher-supervised peer educators.
The initial controversy over the program occurred when three students who failed to get parental permission slipped into one of the classes during a lesson that included a condom demonstration. The Teen PEP advisor saw the problem as one of “administrative oversight.” But some parents and community members seized on the opportunity to criticize the content of the program. One voiced her belief that sex education should focus solely on abstinence and condom failure rates, while another claimed that the program “demeans” abstinence as an option and that the agenda of comprehensive education is to develop “sexual sophistication.”
Within a few weeks of the slip up, opponents of the program had a website up with a petition to end the program, were speaking with local reporters, and were recommending an abstinence-only-until-marriage program to replace Teen PEP. The small group of parents and community members also received support from statewide conservative groups, including the New Jersey Family Policy Council and the New Jersey Physicians Research Council.
The district convened a school board meeting to air parental concerns and established an ad hoc review committee for the next year’s curriculum. The superintendent defended the program saying that it complies with New Jersey statutes regarding medically accurate, comprehensive sex education. He went on to say, “Teen PEP is not introducing sexual content into these teens’ lives; the content is already there...we’re just trying to provide accurate information so that they can make decisions that are informed.” And, the assistant superintendent of curriculum for the district said “This is a few parents making a lot of noise.” The district was very supportive of the program and said it plans to continue it, but also that it is open to suggestions about including more information in the permission slip.
When it became clear that the district was not backing down, the opponents of Teen PEP enlisted the New Jersey Legal Resource Council (NJLRC) to write a letter threatening legal action if the school did not discontinue the program. The group is the legal arm of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, which is associated with the national far right group, Focus on the Family. Claiming to be protecting “the interests of young, impressionable minds” and arguing that Teen PEP communicates “harmful messages,” the NJLRC warned there will be “no alternative” if the “issues” go unaddressed. It argued that Teen PEP contains “medically inaccurate statistical data [and] politicizes information,” and furthermore, that the information “is harmful to minors and placed in other contexts, could be considered endangered (sic) the welfare of a child.”
The move seems to have been a bluff that failed; at the time of this writing (10 months after the date on the letter), a lawsuit has yet to be filed and the Teen PEP program continues.
A condom demonstration lesson in Park Ridge, IL sparked a similar controversy and again, school administrators stood up to the objections of a few parents. The lesson in question focused on birth control and condoms and was delivered to students in a freshman biology class at Maine South High School.
The objections started after a parent, who was affiliated with the Illinois Family Institute, a conservative organization that works to “promote and defend biblical truths,” read through her child’s biology syllabus and became upset. She and some other parents said they were concerned with the description of a lesson teaching correct condom use and argued that birth control was being taught “at the expense of more important educational topics.” 
Over 100 people on both sides of the issue attended the school board meeting following the objection. A number of parents defended the birth control lesson arguing that topics could not be excised from the curricula simply because they made a small minority of people uncomfortable. The father of a sophomore said, “It’s a fact of life that these kids have sex. The more they know about contraception, the better.”
The board agreed to review the material and reminded parents that they had the option of removing their children from classes dealing with sexuality. In the meantime, the board decided to keep the topic, called “Meiosis/Reproduction,” in the class curriculum.
These examples confirm that in recent years, school administrators have felt supported to stand up to the small, but vocal groups of parents and community members who oppose comprehensive sexuality education. In the past these opponents were often able to derail campaigns for more comprehensive education. This school year, districts across the county defended existing programs and even shepherded new, more comprehensive programs through the approval process.
MOVING TOWARD MORE INFORMATION AND RESPECT BECAUSE OF STUDENT ADVOCATES
This year we saw a continuation of students advocating for sexuality education that meets their needs and addresses the realities they live with. Controversies starring student activists also overlapped quite a bit with controversies involving districts failing to protect their LGBTQ students. In this context, it’s particularly encouraging to see marginalized students taking the lead in holding their schools accountable and advocating for their rights.
One of the more inspiring stories this year came from the Bronx, NY where a group of young women have been leading the push for a sexuality education mandate in New York City schools. All New York schools are required to meet minimum requirements for teaching HIV/AIDS prevention, but city schools are not required to offer sexuality education that covers any other topics such as contraceptives, relationships, or general health and well being for their students, even in high school.
Driven by this fact, as well the high numbers of sexually active students in city schools and a high pregnancy rate among women under the age of 20, a group of students started a petition to mandate that schools teach a more comprehensive version of sexuality education. “It’s as important as our other classes,” said one of the ninth-graders organizing the effort. “It’s affecting our lives, but we don’t know anything about it,” echoed one of her classmates.
Since they started their campaign three years ago as middle school students in an after-school program, the young women have seen some success. In October 2007, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) approved new curricula for sexuality education that address many of the concerns the teens highlighted. Still, the city failed to mandate that the curricula be taught and advocates report that the lack of information in many schools is “astonishing.”
The students took their campaign to the next step in November 2007 and testified before the New York City Council in the week leading up to World AIDS Day. The young women shared the reality of teen pregnancy in their community—the rate among young women ages 15–19 is 137 per 1,000 in the Bronx compared with 99 per 1,000 citywide—and urged council members to require better oversight of the DOE.
The DOE said through a spokesperson that it supports the new curriculum and is encouraging principals to send their teachers to trainings. The DOE has also piloted the new sexuality education curriculum in the Bronx, but results of the evaluation are not available and the city has so far refused to take up a mandate.
Two students in Wood River, IL also raised the profile of sexuality education in their junior high school this year. The two young women were suspended for “insubordination” and violating the dress code after wearing shirts proclaiming “Safe Sex or No Sex” at Lewis and Clark Junior High School.
The 14-and-15-year-old duo wore the homemade tank tops with condoms pinned to them in protest of the district’s abstinence-only-until-marriage policy. The pair planned their protest after two other students were suspended for having condoms; one pinned a condom to her shirt sleeve while the other was carrying one in her purse. The two young women were removed from school for two days for refusing to change the shirts.
Administrators say they believed the attire disrupted the education environment and were concerned that younger students would see the shirts. The superintendent also said the students had the opportunity to voice their concerns in their once-a-month character education classes.
He confirmed that the school sponsors an abstinence-only program—an annual speech by a guest speaker—and displayed no interest in adding additional information. “If we were to get into safe-sex education, it would look like we’re condoning that 11- to-13-year-olds are having sex, and we absolutely do not condone that,” he said.
The young protestors disagreed, as did many of their peers. “They should be teaching us safe sex instead of abstinence, because it happens,” said one of the protestors. “And if we’re going to have sex, be safe about it.” The other explained “Most of the students are on our side. They saw me on the news and they all applauded me. They’re happy someone actually decided to take a stand.”
As in years past, much of the student activism this year focused on LGBTQ young people’s rights and safety within public schools. An excellent example of LGBTQ youth pushing their school for support occurred in Wichita, KS, where after months of lobbying by student groups and an incident that resulted in the expulsion of a student, Wichita schools finally considered an anti-discrimination policy that explicitly prohibits harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation.
The incident involved a student at Metro-Midtown Alternative High School who was teased because of his perceived sexual orientation. The student reacted to the teasing with a violent outburst and was subsequently expelled.
Since November, the Gay-Straight Alliance and other student groups in the district have been lobbying the school board to cover sexual orientation in the district’s anti-discrimination policy. The students describe hearing gay slurs like “faggot” in the halls regularly. The recent incident has also elevated the importance of explicitly covering perceived sexual orientation as well, as the student in question identifies as heterosexual.
District officials originally responded to the students by reiterating that the general anti-discrimination policy covers sexual orientation. “Harassment is harassment, and we write that broadly to apply to all students,” a spokesperson said.
However, after the incident, a school board member said they would listen to concerns about the policy. “I feel like our policy, as it’s written, covers discrimination of any order,” she said. “However, if adding a line would alleviate a level of concern, that certainly wouldn’t hurt anything.” The board has also acknowledged plans to implement new anti-bullying training for school staff that includes specific material about sexual orientation.
LGBTQ students and their allies in Belleville, IL also organized to demand better treatment this year. Several students staged a protest in the town’s civic square to draw attention to the discrimination they say gay and lesbian students face at Belleville East High School. “This is why we are having a peaceful protest,” a senior said, “so people know what’s going on.”
The senior alleged that the administration impeded efforts to start a gay-straight alliance at Belleville East, though several other middle and high schools in the St. Louis area have such student organizations. Numerous complaints allege the administration shows hostility towards gay and lesbian students. In one instance, two male students were made to apologize for a kiss they shared on-stage during a pageant performance. In another, administrators kept a letter-to-the-editor about the mistreatment of gay and lesbian students from running in the school paper. And, a female athlete was made to resign from her post in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes after she participated in a talk radio discussion on gay teens. “I was on the radio one day, and then the next day, the coach that sponsors the FCA told me I had to step down,” the young woman explained, “I can’t believe they did that because I talked about gay issues.”
The principal denies the accusations and stands by the decisions in each of these instances. In explaining the punishment of the two male performers, he said “it was an issue of appropriateness… if you take your family to a G-rated movie; you expect to see a G-rated movie.” He affirmed that it was the Fellowship that demanded the resignation, and that he had mediated between the athlete and the organization in an attempt to maintain the student’s position. He also deferred to the school board on the questions about the GSA.
In St. Peter, MN administrators were more supportive of LGBTQ students’ rights and safety, but harassment continued unchallenged until a student organized a lunchtime rally to speak out. The high school freshman had experienced name-calling, shoving, and spitting since she came out in junior high. She founded the school’s gay-straight alliance, but acknowledged that it had also made her a target. In February 2008, she found “Dykes Suck” scrawled across her locker in deodorant and decided to respond.
Within the span of a week she organized with fellow students through Facebook and word-of-mouth to take over a lunch period for a speak-out and protest of the treatment of LGBTQ students in the school. The demonstration included guerrilla theater, personal testimony, and speeches from students and representatives of LGBTQ advocacy groups. “I wanted to stand up for all students, minorities or not, who are oppressed through acts of hate, whether they are physical, emotional, or verbal,” she said at the rally.
The principal was supportive of the event and opened the auditorium to the public, parents, and press. Hundreds of students also stood in support, wearing T-shirts reading “Stop Hate. Just Love.” “This was kind of the place to be,” joked one senior in attendance. “But I really came because there are some things going on that are wrong and we have to recognize that,” he continued.
The school’s administration also recognized this and immediately begun an investigation into the vandalism.
While the events in St. Peter, MN were ultimately hopeful, a shooting in Oxnard, CA, reminded us how far we still have to go in making schools safe for LGBTQ youth. Fifteen-year-old Larry King was shot twice in the head at his junior high school on February 12th, 2008 and died days later in a hospital. The shooter was a fellow 14-year-old student.
King was out as gay among his classmates and had taken to occasionally wearing make-up, high-heeled boots, or other accessories to school. Friends and classmates believe he was targeted for his sexual orientation and gender presentation and the authorities are prosecuting the case as a hate crime.
The community was stunned by the incident, but students quickly mobilized a march to pay tribute to the slain student. The march was organized by high school and middle school students and in a few days, flyers, text messages, and MySpace bulletins brought out a much larger crowd than expected. Over 1,000 young people marched from the junior high school where the shooting occurred to a city park.
One of King’s friends at the march remembered him as brave: “When people came up and started punking him, he just stood up for himself,” she said.
The superintendent of the school district also marched with the students and commented that “We forget the goodness that is in most of our kids. This tremendous turnout by kids is an expression of their voices, their opinions.”
King’s death moved communities across the country to vigils and marches as well. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) dedicated the 2008 Day of Silence, a student-organized event to recognize the violence LGBTQ students face, to his memory. The outpouring of sympathy and support has been moving, but in too many school districts LGBTQ youth are still fighting to be safe and free of discrimination in their daily lives. This year, we found almost no sexuality education controversies over sexual orientation and gender identity. This is a distinct change from past years when controversies over the inclusion of these topics in sex education classes sparked some of the most impassioned debates we’ve seen. It’s hard to say whether this is a hopeful sign that objections are waning or an indication that school districts are avoiding what they see as controversial conversations altogether. What is clear is that the focus of much of our monitoring this year shifted to stories on gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and the barriers they continue to face as students push for safe spaces to be themselves and discuss their rights.
Student clubs known as gay-straight alliances have been multiplying across the country in high schools—and even some middle schools—for years. As their numbers have grown districts have become much less willing to go to court to prevent the groups from forming on their campuses. Many districts learned early that the Equal Access Act of 1984, which states that school districts cannot restrict extracurricular clubs on the basis of “religious, political, philosophical or other content,” protects students who wish to form GSAs. As a result, the lawsuits have slowed, but many districts are still not welcoming of GSAs and make efforts to appease a vocal conservative minority who oppose the clubs.
In Farmington, NM, the Municipal School Board of Education decided to permit a high school gay-straight alliance club to form, but only because it feared the consequences of banning the club. Although some members had reservations about the club’s alleged sexual nature, the school board was motivated by the threat of losing all extracurricular clubs and activities if the GSA was banned. 
The American Civil Liberties Union made this clear by reiterating the tenets of the Equal Access act and threatening legal action if the GSA was not allowed to form.
Taking those warnings to heart, the school board weighed the value of other activities against its disapproval of the Gay-Straight Alliance club itself. The board’s deputy secretary said, “The choice to ban all clubs would eliminate any benefit we as a school board are currently contributing back to the community.” He cited Boy Scouts meetings, Little League baseball, and Special Olympics practices as some important uses of school facilities. The board felt those services were too valuable to lose, and decided to continue to permit any club, including the Gay-Straight Alliance, to form.
Some school board members upset with this decision are moving to lobby the state legislature in the hopes of a law that will allow them to ban the GSA while keeping other activities.
In the meantime, the board is moving forward a new policy that places additional restrictions on club formation and participation. For example, under the new policy students will now be required to obtain parental permission for participation in activities. In addition, the board is setting up a committee to review content regulation procedures. Clubs may also have to reapply for formation on a yearly basis. The new policy was motivated by concerns over the potential content of the GSA. The board vice president, for example, was concerned that the club would discuss the “school-inappropriate topic of sex.” He said that he is “fearful of my kids talking about sexual topics away from my home.”
The school board was inundated with parent and community opinions when deliberating. Many were opposed to the Gay-Straight Alliance, while others supported an open policy on club formation. Reactions afterwards were also mixed. One parent worried about the potential “agenda” of groups such as the Gay-Straight Alliance, but understood the school board’s reasoning in its final decision.
And, one of the teachers involved in sponsoring the GSA worried that having to reapply annually will simply create more overhead and work for the sponsors. She also said she believes that students should be allowed to participate in whatever clubs they want, regardless of parental permission.
A principal in Irmo, SC faced a similar controversy when a GSA formed at his school and he took the dramatic step of announcing his resignation in protest of the group. His announcement caused uproar from students who planned to join the club, community members, and national gay rights organizations.
The principal explained his approval of the GSA in May 2008 by citing the Equal Access Act. A week later, the he announced his resignation in a letter to the community. He explained that the club conflicts with his beliefs and went on to say, “I feel the formation of a Gay/Straight Alliance club at Irmo High School implies that students joining the club will have chosen to or will choose to engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex, opposite sex, or members of both sexes.” Although he announced his resignation, the principal plans to remain with the school through the 2008–09 school year and officially resign in June of 2009.
The community was divided in its response to his announcement. Some felt the principal was out of line. South Caroline Equality, a gay rights group in the state, called for him to be terminated immediately, saying, “The principal has emphatically and publicly stated that he does not support a significant portion of his student body…Everyday that this principal remains at Irmo High, students will continue to live in fear for their safety. These unsafe and dangerous conditions for gay students are intolerable.” Potential members of the GSA held a rally outside of the district school board meeting to call for an earlier resignation. The most passionate supporter was a parent who lost her 20-year-old son in 2007 to a violent crime when he was targeted because he was gay. She said that the GSA is a support system that the students may not otherwise have.
Many community members, however, supported the principal in his opposition to the GSA. The school board met to further discuss the club and the overwhelming majority of people who spoke at the meeting defended the principal. In addition, some community members, teachers, parents, and students held a prayer vigil to support him.
At the meeting, the board approved a policy that says, “school employees cannot promote, lead, or participate in meetings of [‘non-curriculum’-related] club activities,” and that “the principal could deny the use of school facilities for such clubs if it is determined that they disrupt the orderly conduct of educational activities.” The board met again in June 2008 and confirmed that it would allow the GSA, but voted to give parents the right to prohibit their child from participating in any club. The board also voted to ban school clubs from discussing “sexually explicit topics” to keep with the district’s abstinence-only-until-marriage policy.
In Aurora, IL, school administrators have also been unsupportive of a GSA and are pushing its student members to operate as “Diversity Club” and drop all explicit mentions of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Students at Oswego East High School started the club last year and found two supportive school faculty members, but they’ve yet to receive any official support from the school’s administrators. Administrators have refused to pay the club’s faculty advisors for their time the way faculty members are paid for sponsoring other clubs. The faculty members have also been told that they are expected to attend meetings “in a non-participatory capacity in order to retain authority to maintain order.”
“We want students with differences, no matter what their differences are, to be in one club,” the principal said. During the planning of events for the national Day of Silence, the principal also urged the students to limit their messages to bullying in general. “We wanted to raise awareness for people who are silenced by their orientation and he’s trying to silence us” explained the GSA’s co-president after conversations with the principal.
In the weeks leading up to the Day of Silence the administration also received complaints from disapproving parents, some of whom learned about the event from the American Family Association, a national far right organization. One father expressed outrage and compared the school making space for the GSA to making space for street gangs to meet.
The principal made it clear that the school in no way supported the Day of Silence, but the GSA members and their allies were able to proceed with their plans to stay silent for the day and hand out cards raising awareness about the violence and harassment that LGBTQ people face on a daily basis.
In all three of these examples, districts allowed GSAs, but also erected a number of administrative barriers to make the work of the student clubs harder. Across the country, more and more GSAs are approved to avoid lawsuits, but students then find themselves frustrated by administrators who want to change the name and focus of the club, parental permission slip policies, or “non-curriculum related” designations that keep them from announcing their meetings or using the school’s name on their materials.
LGBTQ students and their allies have made great strides, but it’s clear that most school districts have a long ways to come before the schools are safe and respectful spaces for young people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
We wrote last year that the pendulum has begun to swing back toward a more progressive view of sexuality education. Our monitoring this year reaffirms that the public has little trust left in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, and with President Obama in office there’s a possibility that this will translate into an end to funding for these programs as well. On the local level, we continued to see parents and community members question and oppose these programs. In many cases, they were replaced with curricula that included conversations about disease prevention and contraception. In addition, school districts and their allies in the community also persevered in defending more comprehensive programs against the objections of conservative, abstinence-only proponents. After a few years of mounting evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are ineffective, state policy has also started to shift in many places. This played a role in a number of controversies this year as advocates leveraged the weight of state law to support more comprehensive programs.
However, within this drive for improved sexuality education, young people still face many obstacles. They continue to be incredible advocates for their right to information about sexuality, though youth are still likely to encounter school officials who are more interested in avoiding controversy. In many places we saw content related to sexuality in books, school newspapers, and yearbooks questioned or repressed. Youth also led the charge against bullying and harassment of LGBTQ people. This year, we saw few districts that were willing to take up the issues of sexual orientation or gender identity in sexuality education classes, but we hope that the excellent anti-harassment work done by these young people will lay the foundation for future discussions.
In another complicated trend, many advocates successfully pushed for more comprehensive sexuality education this year by focusing on the sometimes panic inducing statistics and personal stories about teen sex, teen pregnancy, STDs, and HIV. By discussing these statistics and framing comprehensive sexuality education as the most effective way to reduce these measures, they have successfully removed abstinence-only programs and provided students with more information about contraception. Unfortunately, this frame of sexuality education as the most effective way to prevent the “disasters” of teen sex, teen pregnancy, STDs, and HIV neglects the broader benefits of truly comprehensive sexuality education and deflects attention from the institutional factors that are inextricably linked to teen sexual health outcomes. We hope that these recent victories will only be the first step in a movement toward acknowledging the benefits of sexuality education beyond reducing STDs and teen pregnancy and toward acknowledging it’s interdependence with broader social programs to fight their root causes like poverty, sexism, racism, and homophobia.
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