General Articles

Tempest in a Tea Party: A Summary Report on Sexuality Education Controversies, School Year 2010-2011

Introduction: Progress Steeped in Pragmatism
The 2010-2011 school year unfolded against the backdrop of a seismic political shift in which Tea Party-affiliated conservative Republican candidates swept into national, state and local offices and delivered the Democratic Party its biggest congressional setback since 1928. Although many Tea Party-backed candidates professed no interest in social issues or ‘culture wars’, some of their most outspoken leaders quickly took on reproductive choice and sexual freedoms as a legislative priority.[1]
Given this ominous political context, it took the continued support and advocacy of students, parents, and progressive policy makers to ensure that many local school districts preserved earlier gains favoring comprehensive sexuality education.  Many of these gains were preserved thanks to public school stakeholders’ concern about local rates of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among youth. SIECUS has observed that this rationale for more comprehensive sexuality education presents unique challenges: while applauding local efforts to broaden and deepen school sexuality education content, SIECUS is concerned that rationales built solely upon alarm over risk behavior data may have the effect of limiting instruction to “sexual health disaster prevention.”
Community action in 2010-11 took place in an unusually challenging political atmosphere, and advocates found themselves moving cautiously when called upon to advance new sexuality education initiatives. Others found themselves treading water to defend existing programs and resources against conservative charges that comprehensive approaches wasted taxpayer money at a time when austerity was required. Perhaps this has been the main legacy of the Tea Party’s rise to power; under the guise of fiscal prudence and respect for ‘the Taxpayer’, publicly-funded sexuality education is targeted for cuts whether it takes place in schools, health centers, community-based organizations, or on the internet. Facing such ideologically-driven charges, local champions of comprehensive sexuality education often chose the most pragmatic approaches to protect recent policy gains.
For nearly two decades, SIECUS has tracked and analyzed thousands of controversies regarding sex education. By highlighting select examples from numerous states across the nation, our annual special report aims to illustrate and explain trends in sex education that SIECUS has monitored during the 2010-2011 school year.

Opposition Boils Over
With the ascendance of Tea Party-backed legislators and their conservative allies, states and localities across the nation witnessed reinvigorated opposition to sexuality education – especially when related to public services. Whether it was a statewide professional conference for public school teachers, a behavioral survey conducted in tandem with a local public school curriculum, or a condom availability program linked to public health services, the target of opposition was invariably public-sector rather than private.   
In November 2010 Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey’s annual Sex Education Conference was disrupted by a contingent of state Tea Party demonstrators, whose main complaint about the conference was presence of public school teachers at an event hosted by a Planned Parenthood affiliate. Conference registration is open to anyone, and participants have long included public school health teachers whose responsibility is to provide the state-mandated instruction on sexual health.
The demonstrators confined themselves to the conference center entrance, but for weeks before and after the conference they circulated rumors and exaggerations to alarm state residents about the conference proceedings. Typical of the opposition’s misinformation was this anonymously-written entry from a conservative blog: “Despite its stated purpose, NJ Planned Parenthood’s conference was not focused on long-term health goals for teens. Topics such as protecting from sexual diseases and avoiding teen pregnancy by exercising self-control and delaying gratification were not on the agenda…workshops for middle school and high school educators were disturbingly inappropriate.”[2]
New Jersey is unique in having a 30-year-old state law requiring public schools to provide K-12 sexuality education. Many states in the U.S. mandate only HIV education in middle and high schools, and provide little guidance or incentive to provide instruction in other sexuality topics. Until recently, in states that did provide guidance or additional mandates, abstinence-only-until-marriage was often the approach.
Approximately a dozen Tea Party activists amassed at the conference site entrance in Somerset, waving placards to the effect that ‘Sex Education Belongs at Home’ and urging Governor Chris Christie to ‘De-fund Planned Parenthood’ (Title X family planning funds are federal, not state, a point lost on the protesters). The Tea Party presence had its intended effect of distracting participants and forcing the conference organizers to incur the added expense of providing additional security, but it did not prevent the conference from achieving its objective to increase educators’ knowledge of sexuality education resources and research.
Opposition forced the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to cancel a multi-state adolescent sexual health conference planned for May 2011. The state’s public school Health Education Coordinator reached out to state and regional partners in Minnesota and South Dakota to convene a 2-day conference in Fargo titled “Adolescent Sexual Health: Looking Ahead with 2020 Vision.”[3]One of the co-sponsors was the regional Planned Parenthood affiliate for all three states.
Local opponents denounced the objectives of the conference in addition to the slate of presenters. Objectives targeted by opponents included, “Identify components of safe, supportive, school environments inclusive of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender and Questioning students and family members.” The conference was to include presenters from Answer (Rutgers University), SIECUS, and the Minnesota Department of Education.
The state public school Health Education Coordinator defended the conference’s content and speakers by noting that North Dakota’s adolescent pregnancy and HIV prevention program is funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to conduct these activities. Nonetheless, conference planners were silenced by a conservative grass-roots effort to shut the event down before it started.
Faced with vociferous opposition, the North Dakota DPI and other partners canceled the conference with an intent to reschedule it when the educational and political climate became more supportive of CDC-supported public health approaches to adolescent sexual health.
In October 2010, administrators at Hardy Middle School in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) system were attacked in a Georgetown community blog for their handling of a sexual risk-behavior survey intended to gather data about the Grade 7 student population. The survey was administered as part of the routine implementation of the DCPS-approved HIV-prevention curriculum Making Proud Choices. DCPS community partner Metro Teen AIDS managed the administration of the survey and related materials supporting the curriculum. The Georgetown Dish blog reported that “parents heard about the ‘sex test’ from their kids. ‘The school is making us take a sex survey,’ one child told his mother… One child was so upset by the test, a parent told The Georgetown Dish, he hyperventilated.”[4]
Despite the blog’s charges that Hardy Middle School was sexually exploiting its students and undermining parents, DCPS rebutted the wilder allegations and issued an apology for the mishandling of one specific aspect of the survey: an opt-out letter to be delivered to parents was sent out the same day the assessment was delivered. In addition, Metro Teen AIDS Executive Director Adam Tenner posted the following comments directly on the blog site:
“We regret that the opt-out forms did not go out before the first day of class. We strongly believe that parents have a role to play in providing HIV/AIDS and reproductive health education. In fact MTA offers an Adult Peer-to-Peer Education that provides parents with communication skills and techniques for engaging their children in effective conversations about reproductive health and disease/pregnancy prevention.”[5]
While Metro Teen AIDS, DCPS, and Hardy administrators acknowledged poor handling of the parental notification process, they stood firm against demands that fact-finding efforts about youth sexual risk behaviors be discontinued.[6]
In an effort to curb rising rates of unintended pregnancy, HIV, and other STIs, teen advocates from the non-profit organization Hyde Square Task Force embarked on a mission to get city officials to expand sexuality education programs and access to condoms to all Boston, Massachusetts-area schools. At-Large Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley requested a formal hearing for the teens, who urged the district to expand condom availability and increase instructional time for sexual health topics.
Boston’s contraception access policy states that condom availability is strictly limited to eight of the city’s 35 high schools. Those eight were chosen because they contain city-run health centers. Each requires parental consent from students before they can obtain condoms or other contraception. This mandate, which has been in place since 1994 and has yet to be updated, is on the students’ target list.[7]
Students point out that the content of the existing sexuality education programs is also in need of major revision, given its lack of consistency and its basis in abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula. They report that the programs have been inconsistent in both instruction and implementation: some schools provide sexuality education over several weeks, while others limit instruction to just a few days.[8]
In addition to providing a more consistent and comprehensive sexuality education program for all students, the proposed sexual health plan would designate one male and one female staff member in each school to respond to student condom requests. The appointed staff members would supplement condom availability already provided by authorized staff in each school-based health center. Yadelyn Acevedo, a Brook Farm and Business & Service Career Academy senior, argued in favor of the proposal: “Youth will do what they want. It’s better to give them options and ways to be safe.”[9]
Driving the teens’ urgency for a scale-up of comprehensive programs and resources are Boston’s rates of STIs and unintended pregnancy. In 2007 over 1,300 Boston-area youth ages 15−19 were diagnosed with Chlamydia – a 70 percent jump from a decade earlier.[10]  Samantha Brea, a seventeen year-old senior at Muriel S. Snowden International High School expressed her concern about sexuality education’s rank among the priorities of Boston schools. “It’s sad,” said Brea. “The schools would rather focus on things like books and tests than things that are affecting us now and could affect our tomorrow.”[11]
Barbara Huscher, Boston Public Schools health education program director, agreed with the teens on the importance of their health. “We are going to have to listen to the community,” Huscher stated. “Boston Public Schools is in the business of teaching, and that’s what we focus on first. But we also want to keep students healthy.” Officials are already taking steps towards improving health programs, reviewing all of the current programs and brainstorming new program ideas for the school district through its newly created Health and Wellness Department.[12]
The teens’ proposal has drawn criticism from those opposed to teaching comprehensive sexuality education in schools. A local opposition group, Pure in Heart, chastised the student advocates for not demanding abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula. Pure in Heart member Chris Pham stated that he believes that the teens’ proposal for greater access to condoms could make things worse. “The fact is, condoms are not the answer,” Pham said. “What they need to do is get better educated. They need to know the alternative is to wait until you are married.”[13]
In response to such criticism, teen advocates proposed that Boston public schools also offer an abstinence-only course in concurrence with comprehensive sexuality education curricula. They also produced a short video to make the case for their proposals. First shown in December 2010 at the Connolly Branch Library in Jamaica Plain, it highlighted youth risk behavior data in the context of interviews with local students, educators, and city officials who favor expanding comprehensive sexuality education and condom availability to all public schools in Boston.[14]
In Spring 2011 the Philadelphia Health Department’s expanded condom availability initiative was targeted for opposition from conservative Christian advocates. The initiative, called Take Control Philly, was also criticized by an LGBTQ advocate who used a public school informational forum to call attention to the program’s failure to be more inclusive.
The program web site, visitors to use a condom “every time you have oral, anal, and vaginal sex” in order to avoid HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. For those living with HIV, the site reminds them that “it is important to have protected (safer) sex with your partner(s).” The site also provides video tutorials of how to use both male and female condoms. In addition to listing several locations where teens can obtain contraceptives, it offers free condoms via mail to anyone “between the ages of 11 and 19” living in the city.  The age of anticipated clients, as well as the mailing service, has fed a groundswell of complaint from the opposition.[15]
A column by Philadelphia Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky published the response of a parent upset by the Take Control Philly program. “I am personally outraged,” wrote the woman, who identified herself as a mother of a 14-year-old. “What is it telling our youth? I get the sex-education thing for kids in schools, but mail-order condoms for 11-year-olds??? It’s shocking to me.”[16]
In contrast, LGBTQ advocate Celeste Lavin expressed concern about the program in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a local source of information on school policies, programs, and related youth issues. “While this is a great effort to educate and protect our city’s youth, the Take Control initiative ignores the needs of gay youth…[it] does not once mention sexual contact among same-sex partners. The videos demonstrating proper condom usage refer only to coitus, not offering any explanation for youth who are having sex in other ways.”[17]
Although Take Control Philly is independent of condom-availability services which exist in some Philadelphia public high schools, advocates for such services worry that opposition to the new health department initiative will undermine what progress has been made so far to increase access to condoms in school for sexually-active students.
The Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) board was consumed by a debate over the efficacy of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted diseases. Board member David Robbins denied the effectiveness of condoms during a policy discussion of the district’s school-based health clinics. Robbins argued that pores in latex condoms are larger than HIV and that "The public has been misled to believe by too many public health officials that condoms equal safe sex. They do not."[18]Robbins said he had found references to studies on an abstinence web site to prove that pores in latex are large enough to allow viruses to pass; despite this mention of studies, he declined to specify the authors, titles, or publication sources of the information.
State and local public health officials reacted with dismay to this effort by a school board member in a major metropolitan district to disseminate misinformation about condoms and to link it to school health practices. "Every major medical and public health organization in the world supports condom use as the main protection against HIV" and other sexually transmitted diseases, said Dr. Bruce Trigg, medical director of the New Mexico Department of Health's STD program.
Health clinics operate at nine Albuquerque public schools: three high schools, five middle schools and one elementary school. The University of New Mexico jointly operates the clinics with APS, although the school district does not provide direct funding to the clinics. Moreover, a number of the clinics are run by providers who are not employed by APS.[19]  Clinic staff currently cannot provide condoms or birth control on site but they can write prescriptions for birth control or provide referrals to other doctors.[20]
An APS policy committee voted to revise the district’s policy prohibiting those clinics from providing contraceptives to student patients. Under the proposed revision, non-APS employees would be authorized to provide condoms and contraception at the clinics. While the policy’s current language states that “birth control devices and medication will not be dispensed at school sites,” the proposed language states that “birth control and medication shall not be dispensed by Albuquerque Public Schools.”[21]The policy committee voted in favor of the proposed change in November 2010, along with nine other policy revisions.[22]
School board members favoring the policy argued that the revision is necessary for compliance under the New Mexico Family Planning Act and the federal Title X family planning law. According to the state’s Family Planning Act, no health facility can include in its policies or bylaws “a statement that . . . interferes with the physician-client relationship in connection with the provision of any family planning service.”[23]APS school clinics also receive Title X federal funding and therefore under federal law the school district cannot prohibit the distribution of birth control by federally funded programs without passing a policy to ban the practice.[24]
“[I]f we’re going to have school-based health clinics in our schools, then we have to accept the fact that there is a doctor-patient relationship that we can’t interfere with,” commented APS Superintendent Winston Brooks. “[The revised policy] clarifies that APS employees cannot distribute condoms but that we’re not going to interfere in the doctor-patient relationship.”[25]
Despite the charge by federal and state mandates to update APS policy, some board members and parents disagreed with the proposed revision. The issue to revise the rule was first introduced in September 2010 but was tabled and reintroduced in November when it passed out of the policy committee.[26]Board member David Robbins opposed the proposed changes, stating that the updated language would violate a parent’s religious rights.[27]Robbins also argued that the proposed revision would conflict with the school district’s purpose: “I do not think [the proposed policy] meets the education mission of APS. We’re in the mission of education, not the mission of enabling any form of behaviors.”[28]
Straining Out Impurities?
Conservative religious organizations, particularly ‘crisis pregnancy’ centers, moved aggressively in several states to influence the content of sexuality education in public schools. In some districts these organizations worked to impose their own curricula and instructors upon local schools, while in others they sought to provide extracurricular events and resources to promote divisive and discriminatory ideas of ‘purity’ through sexual abstinence.   
Richmond County School District (Augusta, GA and suburbs) was the scene of contention over a proposed teen pregnancy prevention initiative to be offered at Butler High and Sego Middle schools by the Augusta Care Pregnancy Center. In June 2010, the school district announced a partnership with Susan Swanson, the agency’s director, to pilot a character-building program in the two public schools, with a focus on abstinence promotion. By September the agreement had soured amid charges of miscommunication by both sides.
Driven by the desire to address the high rates of teenage pregnancy in the district (over 100 teen pregnancies were reported among district students in the 2009-10 school year) the Instruction Committee of the Richmond County school board expressed interest in Augusta Care’s program. Swanson intended to recruit instructors from the Abstinence & Marriage Education Partnershipto teach its program in the designated schools.
According to its web site, Augusta Care Pregnancy Center “is a non-profit Christian ministry created for sharing the good news about Jesus Christ with all we come in contact. We also strive to raise a standard showing God's concern for mothers and their unborn babies.”[29]
The Abstinence & Marriage Education Partnership, a longtime recipient of federal Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) funding, says its vision is to reach “every teenager in the country with the abstinence and marriage message.”[30]Scott Phelps, who has a long history in the abstinence-only-until-marriage and anti-choice movement, founded the organization. His career began at the crisis pregnancy center Caris Prevention Services, also a CBAE grantee.  Mr. Phelps also helped to co-author two of the most popular fear-based abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, A.C. Green’s Game Plan and Navigator, both of which were distributed by Project Reality, a Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage and CBAE grantee in Illinois for many years. Mr. Phelps then went on to found the Abstinence & Marriage Education Partnership and create a new curriculum, ASPIRE: Live your life. Be free.  The Abstinence & Marriage Education Partnership also produces the Quest and Excel abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula.  Mr. Phelps also helped found the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA) and currently serves on its Board of Directors.[31]
The Richmond County School Board’s Family Dynamics committee, which reviews “anything dealing with sex education or other sensitive items,” determined that the Augusta Care program “did not meet all of the Georgia Performance Standards, and the pregnancy center instructors who would teach the program do not meet the federal definition of ‘highly qualified’ teachers.”[32]  As such, the School Board decided that the program must be taught by instructors in the district.  In response, Swanson informed the school district that her organization would not present its program unless it was allowed to use the instructors from the Abstinence & Marriage Education Partnership. 
The School Board held a meeting to discuss Swanson’s objection to using district instructors.  Several attendees reported that they received emails alleging that the meeting would address a proposed takeover of the district’s sex education program by Planned Parenthood.  In response, Board member Helen Minchew said, “I just don't