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Pennsylvania: Sex Ed Opponents Expose Peters

Western Pennsylvania’s Peters Township was exposed to heated accusations from opponents of comprehensive sexuality education in April 2013. A district board of education meeting was the scene of an impassioned debate over the fate of a longstanding sexuality education program for middle school students. An overflow crowd attended a meeting of the board to speak for and against a comprehensive-leaning program that has roots in the district stretching back to at least 1994.

Opponents targeted the Teen Outreach program’s original developer Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski, founder of the Academy for Adolescent Health Inc. in Washington, PA. Dr. Podgurski, who teaches courses in the Department of Education at Washington and Jefferson College, is certified as a sexuality educator by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. Teen Outreach has provided sexuality education to over 230,000 students in grades 5 through 12since it was launched in 1988, reaching learners inall 14 Washington County and 5 Greene County school districts. Sexuality education in Peters Township is currently taught by educators from the district, but Dr. Podgurski was the focus of opponents’ ire. She attended the meeting but did not speak publicly.

Opponent Jennifer Alexander charged that the program for 5th graders was too sexually graphic: “I’m a proud mom of three boys, and I know what’s best for them,” she told the board.[1] She denounced a list of websites in supplemental program materials (not available to the 5th graders) listing several sexual health education organizations to which she objected. She and other opponents argued that the Peters Township program promotes pornography, abortion, and birth control to 10- and 11-year olds.

Parent Kathy LaBellarte accused Podgurski and the district of "an all-out assault on traditional family values," charging that the “liberal" curriculum was the work of organizations such as Planned Parenthood, "to indoctrinate our children into thinking that homosexuality and transgender is normal."[2]

The school district requires parents to sign permission slips authorizing their children to attend the Teen Outreach program, which for middle schoolers consists of two 40-minute sessions in grade 5 and three 40-minute sessions in grade 6. Since 2011, Peters Township School District staff have been trained to teach the program for grades 5/6, 7/8, and 9 through 12.

In an editorial supporting Teen Outreach, the local news source Observer-Reporter criticized the opposition’s tone and tactics:

“…some [opponents] portrayed the classes as the portal to Sodom and Gomorrah.

One parent described the classes as ‘an all-out assault on family values’ and expressed her fear that they would encourage children to engage in certain types of sexual acts. Another parent said he preferred ‘Bible-based information’ that puts ‘God’s interest first.’

According to a story that appeared in this newspaper Tuesday, those protesting the classes were less than courteous when supporters spoke out on behalf of Podgurski and sex education, interrupting with unseemly outbursts.”

Since parental acquiescence is needed for students to attend the courses in the first place, this seems less an attempt by sex education foes to cover their own children’s eyes than it is to narrow the vision of every student in the district.”[3]

Additional expressions of support for the Teen Outreach program appeared in letters to the editor in the days following the board meeting. Mary Jo Harwood of Washington Township challenged the opposition for their behavior during the meeting: “What disturbs me is the hypocrisy that was on display at Monday’s meeting of Peters Township School Board. One parent said, ‘This is an all-out assault on family values.’ The value they were referring to was, of course, parental rights to choose when, what and how sex education will be provided to their children.”[4] Jill Baer McMurray, who identified as a 37-year resident of the district, said, “this type of issue is nothing new. The thing that is newer though, is the rudeness and the mistaken belief by some parents that they can dictate the curriculum for everyone because of their religious or narrow-minded beliefs.”[5]

This is not the first time that Peters Township schools have been the scene of debate over the content of sexuality education. As far back as 1996, the school board was calling upon Dr.  Podgurski to defend a middle school pilot program she helped develop for the district, and for which she was one of the instructors. In that instance, board members and some parents expressed alarm over graphic sexual questions that some 6th-grade males asked – and which Dr.  Podgurski herself had informed the board about, out of her concern that the questions “were too detailed…these kids had seen some stuff, had seen pornography.”[6] The controversy was exacerbated by an unusual circumstance in which a larger than average group of male students attended a program session. While some board members at the time used the incident to call for banning the Teen Outreach program altogether, others defended it and honored Dr. Podgurski’s pledge to make appropriate adjustments. As board member Karen Scharf observed at the time, “the curriculum committee feels [Teen Outreach] is an asset to the health program.”[7]

As the current controversy unfolded, acting district superintendent Joseph Dimperio noted that the Peters Township school health curriculum was already under revision, and that changes to the sexuality education component would take into consideration parents’ concerns.
 


[1] Terri Johnson, “PT Parents Protest Sex-Ed Material,” Observer-reporter.com, April 15, 2013, accessed April 16, 2013, <http://www.observer-reporter.com/article/20130415/NEWS01/130419531#.UW0vdmS9Kc1>.

[2] Janice Crompton, “Peters Township Parents Infuriated over Sex Education,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 18, 2013, accessed May 1, 2013, <http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/local/neighborhoods-south/peters-township-parents-infuriated-over-sex-education-684001/.>

[3] “Editorial: Don’t Bend to Sex Education Zealots,” Observer-reporter.com, April 16, 2013, accessed April 17, 2013, <http://www.observer-reporter.com/article/20130416/OPINION01/130419403>. 

[4] “Letters: Hypocrisy on Display in Peters,”Observer-Reporter.com, April 18, 2013, accessed April 30, 2013, <http://www.observer-reporter.com/article/20130418/OPINION02/130419247/0/SEARCH>.

[5] “Letters: Podgurski Credentials Are Impeccable,” Observer-Reporter.com, April 21, 2013, accessed April 30, 2013, <http://www.observer-reporter.com/article/20130421/OPINION02/130429892/0/SEARCH>.

[6] Sandy Trozzo, “Changes in Store for Sex Education Class,” Observer-Reporter, September 26, 1996, pB2. 

[7] Ibid. 

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