Sex ed dispute packs meeting on Shen campus
CLIFTON PARK Parents packed a meeting room Tuesday evening to either criticize or applaud Shenendehowa school officials for dropping Planned Parenthood instruction from the district’s sex education curriculum.
The district yanked the program in October, less than a month before Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson educators planned to visit Shenendehowa classrooms to offer the enrichment course. A group of parents had objected to the organization teaching students about sex education, and when the class was cancelled, other parents and members of the community objected to that.
“Teaching sex education should not be censored,” said Ann Gawler, adding that perhaps parents should attend the class with their child before deciding against it.
But other parents said they shaped their views after hearing their children tell of the frank talk about sex, genitalia and whether a person can do some sex acts and still be considered abstinent, all of which some students found to be embarrassing and confusing.
District officials said they are reviewing how best to teach the sex education program, and over the next several weeks and months will reconvene a health advisory committee that has met before to discuss the district’s health curriculum.
“Health curriculum here is as strong as it has always been,” said school board President Mary Blaauboer.
Before last fall, trained educators from Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson visited health classes in the eighth grades and in either 11th or 12 grades each semester. Officials from the organization believe the relationship with Shenendehowa has extended for almost 20 years.
District Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson said the decision to pull the Planned Parenthood program was not political.
“It’s not a popularity contest. It’s not a popular vote.”
On Tuesday, more than 200 people packed the Gowana Middle School library for the meeting, speaking for an entire 45-minute block of public comment period. Many people waited until the end of the meeting for a chance to speak at a second open period.
Patricia Bini, mother of two daughters who graduated from Shenendehowa, said both of them found the Planned Parenthood program a great addition to the curriculum.
“I want to support the education they had,” she said. “Anybody afraid of this information has their head in the sand.”
A former student said the program was valuable to her and her classmates.
“It is sometimes an uncomfortable topic to talk about with your parents,” 19-year-old Maureen Dahl said about sex. “The reality is kids are starting things at a very young age, and that is sad, but it’s the truth.”
The parents who objected to the Planned Parenthood curriculum have formed a group called Shen Parents’ Choice Coalition and have asked the district to teach an abstinence-based curriculum called sexual risk avoidance, which Maureen Silfer of Halfmoon said teaches “the consequences of engaging in these risky behaviors.”
“We believe the current sex education curriculum is a danger to our children’s health.” Planned Parenthood teachings “exaggerate” how well contraceptive methods perform, she said.
Although Planned Parenthood officials have said abstinence is emphasized, some parents said it wasn’t stressed enough.
“Condom use was promoted and graphic demonstrations of how to use various methods of contraception were given,” Silfer said. The Planned Parenthood educators used a wooden shaft to simulate a penis for condom demonstrations and a rubber vagina model to insert female contraception, another parent said.
The coalition will hold a meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 21 at the Clifton Park Halfmoon Library for anyone interested in learning more about the proposed program.
Some parents complained that the information presented in the Planned Parenthood class was too graphic or embarrassing for the youngsters, especially for the eighth-graders, and said that in some cases their children felt pressured to talk about things they didn’t want to.
Activities included labeling parts of the male and female genitalia in a co-ed class, said mother Pam Koniszewski.
“They were asked by the teachers to chant the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ repeatedly so the teacher could use those terms without getting the students’ natural reaction,” Koniszewski said.
The co-president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson said parents are always able to opt their children out of taking part in his organization’s program, as they should be.
“Planned Parenthood has always understood that parents are the primary sex educators of their children,” Paul Drisgula said.
But he said most parents like the sex education component that the organization provides, and the organization would like to be able to continue it.
“We want back in.”