With the push of at least one parent in Shawnee, Kansas, Hocker Grove Middle School has removed supplemental sexuality education material after the parent took his complaint directly to the press.
Mark Ellis’ 13-year-old daughter recently took a picture of a poster that listed ways in which couples can express affection. It had been displayed on a classroom door at the middle school. Ellis was horrified to see activities like oral sex, grinding, and masturbation on the list. Though district officials initially defended the poster, the superintendent has since said he is going to pull all of the curriculum’s materials until they can be reviewed.
Ellis told the local Fox affiliate that he thought the poster was a joke at first, but the principal informed him that it was part of a supplemental abstinence curriculum. “It upsets me. And again, it goes back to who approved this? You know this had to pass through enough hands that someone should have said, ‘Wait a minute, these are 13-year-old kids, we do not need to be this in-depth with this sexual education type of program,” he said, arguing that “[t]his has nothing to do with abstinence or sexual reproduction. I would like to see that this particular portion of the curriculum is removed from the school.”
Not all parents feel the same way, however. The Fox affiliate spoke to Lyssa Watland, an eighth grader, and her mother, Jennifer. They argued that young people know about these behaviors already. Jennifer noted, “I’ve read through my daughter’s Facebook, seen her news feed and her friends on there. The things they’ve posted, you’d be astounded.” Lyssa agreed: “You can say all you want, that your children don’t know these things, but they’ve been knowing these things since, maybe, the age of 10.”
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Initially, the district defended the program. Leigh Anne Neal, a spokesperson for the district, explained that the poster was part of a “district approved curriculum” that aligns with national standards as well as with what other schools are doing. She acknowledged, however, that out of context the poster might be alarming, saying, “The item is meant to be part of a lesson, and so certainly as a standalone poster without the context of a teacher-led discussion, I could see that there might be some cause for concern.”
The poster is part of a lesson in Making a Difference!, an eight-session curriculum that is designed to provide “young adolescents with the knowledge, confidence, and skills necessary to reduce their risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), HIV, and pregnancy by abstaining from sex.” Making a Difference! is one of the evidence-based interventions that has been approved for use by programs funded under the federal government’s PREP (Personal Responsibility Education Program) grant, which aims to prevent teen pregnancy. According to a recent report on PREP, the curriculum is currently used in five states and serves over 29,000 young people.
The publisher of the curriculum, Select Media, sent Rewire a copy of the activity that uses the poster. It’s meant to take up ten minutes of a module about sexuality and abstinence. The rationale of this activity is:
Understanding that there are many behaviors that express sexual feelings helps participants choose sexual behaviors that do not result in pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.
To do this, participants brainstorm activities that couples engage in, which include the ones that ended up on the local news, but also
behaviors like holding hands, cuddling on the couch, and talking. The group then goes through the activities on the list to determine what, if any, risk of STDs and pregnancy are involved. In the final part of the activity, participants define abstinence and then discuss how teens can express themselves and their feelings “within abstinence.”
Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of Answer, which educates both teens and the adults who teach them about sexuality, says that nothing in the activity or curriculum is inappropriate for eighth-grade students. In fact, the National Sexuality Education Standards say that by the end of eighth grade, “students should be able to compare and contrast behaviors, including abstinence, to determine the potential risk of STD
and HIV transmission from each.” Schroeder adds, however, that while the lesson plan does this, posting a list of these behaviors publicly without any context does not.
“I love it when teachers believe so strongly in what they’re teaching that they want to share it with others,” said Schroeder, “but putting a poster up where students would see it without any explanation or processing was an unwise decision. Sexuality educators have to remember that the topics they discuss in class are sensitive, and that even when the content is age-appropriate like it is in this case, people sometimes overreact. And that can threaten the whole program.”
Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened in Shawnee. As a result of the media attention, the district’s superintendent, Jim Hinson, sent a note to parents saying, “Concerns were expressed over a poster that was hanging in a classroom at a middle school that was part of a supplemental instructional resource. At this time, the district has suspended the use of the Making A Difference! instructional resource supplement pending a detailed review of the material.”
Hopefully, the review will determine that the poster and activity—when conducted as a teacher-led lesson—is appropriate, and students in Shawnee will once again get the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills around pregnancy and STD prevention. Too often, however, when controversies like this erupt, the curriculum goes in a drawer, and students never see it again.