Shen: Abstinence advocates keep fighting
Group of parents demands changes to curriculum
CLIFTON PARK Parents asking for abstinence-based sex education at the Shenendehowa school district continue to push their position, even after the district has severed its relationship the parents objected to with Planned Parenthood.
To them, the issue isn’t even about Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson anymore but is about the district’s health curriculum, which the parents say assumes many teens will have sex and advises them on condom use and birth control methods.
That teaching promotes sex and puts teens at risk for developing sexually transmitted diseases, said Maureen Silfer of Halfmoon, whose daughter took the district’s sex education unit last year as a senior.
Abstinence education isn’t a “just say no” approach to sex, Silfer said. “We need to really dispel that myth.”
She noted that schools already teach and expect children to stay away from drugs and alcohol for their own health and should employ the same tools when teaching about sex, since the disease risks can affect the rest of their lives.
“Why are we so cynical? Why do we think they can’t make that choice?” she said of maintaining abstinence.
The group of parents known as the Shen Parents’ Choice Coalition wants the district to change its health curriculum to an abstinence-based model, also called sexual risk avoidance, encouraging teens to think about what is important to them and whether having sex now will help them achieve it.
“It’s coming from them, too, so it doesn’t feel like it’s forced on them,” Silfer said.
District spokeswoman Kelly DeFeciani said the district is reconvening a health advisory committee to examine the sex education curriculum, which is taught as a 10-day unit during eighth-grade health class and again in either 11th or 12th grade.
The committee will be meeting over the next few months and is expected to present recommendations to the superintendent before the end of the school year, she said. The group is made up of parents, health teachers and administrators.
“The district has taken great care to include people who represent both sides of the issue and are knowledgeable in health education,” DeFeciani said in an email.
However, she said the district already teaches abstinence, along with facts about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases, as required by the state standards.
Silfer, who will serve on the committee, hopes the district will change its program for next year. The group of Shen parents also disputes certain figures given to students, including numbers they say exaggerate the effectiveness of condoms for HIV protection.
But the committee re-evaluating the sex education curriculum won’t get into that much detail, DeFeciani said.
“The council’s just going to be looking at how the curriculum is handled in general,” she said. “We follow exactly what the state curriculum is.”
Silfer touted the abstinence-based model as being positive for students, saying that children who have been through such programs have fewer life sex partners and if they do choose to have sex as teens are more likely to use a condom than teens who went through a sexual risk reduction program like the kind taught in most schools.
“What are the negatives of this?” Silfer said. “I honestly can’t see anything.”
At a school board meeting earlier this month, critics of the parents said they were sticking their heads in the sand, but that’s not the case, said a former abstinence educator who has been working with the group.
“That’s so far from the truth,” said Laura Conklin of Ballston Spa, who taught abstinence-based sex education in northern New Jersey before moving to the area. Conklin presented part of her program to the Shenendehowa parents at a meeting Saturday.
“No information has been withheld” in the classes, she said. “I tell [teens] all the time that these are your decisions to make.”
Conklin said an abstinence-based model presents more hard data to students than the program currently being taught in schools.
For example, she said teen girls are particularly at risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases because their bodies aren’t mature yet.
“A girl’s cervix when she’s 15 is like a wet sponge,” Conklin said.
In addition, people can get cancer years down the road from sexually transmitted HPV, even from oral sex.
The abstinence-based program also examines the emotional and psychological implications of having sex early, she said. “Sex is not just a physical act. There are chemical changes that happen in a person’s mind.”
Having short-term sexual relationships and hookups teaches the mind that’s the norm and doesn’t help a person strengthen communication skills, build trust or make commitments, Conklin said.
Silfer said she didn’t know Planned Parenthood would be teaching part of her daughter’s health class before her daughter, who is now in college, took it as a senior last spring.
“She just came home one day and said, ‘Oh, you’re going to love this, Mom,’ ” Silfer said. “Honestly, I was very shocked. ... I wasn’t expecting to find out after the fact.”
The family’s former school district in Pittsfield, Mass., would have sent home a letter outlining the curriculum and how to opt out of it, she said. But she said Shenendehowa didn’t.
DeFeciani said the district requires parents to sign their child’s health syllabus saying they’ve read it and has tried various methods to tell parents they can opt out of one day of the 10-day sex education curriculum — HIV and AIDS prevention is the only portion where the state allows an opt-out — including sending a letter home, telling parents at school open houses and passing the word to students in class.
The district is considering how to improve this communication, she said.
However, Shenendehowa has been willing to work with parents, DeFeciani added. “As a district, we have always gone above and beyond what the state regulation calls for by accommodating any special requests from families.
“Teachers are more than happy to meet with parents to discuss any issues or concerns that [parents] may have in regards to the curriculum,” she said.
Parents objected to some of the stories they heard about the Planned Parenthood classes: that students were encouraged to define for themselves what abstinence is; that one girl was teased for adopting a conservative view of abstinence; and that students, especially eighth-graders, were embarrassed by the frank talk about sex acts and genitalia.
“It’s irresponsible. You’re promoting abstinence, but you’re not defining abstinence in a way that keeps children free from STDs,” Silfer said.
After nearly a 20-year partnership in which Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson educators taught a three-day seminar on sex education in those health classes, the district pulled the plug this school year after the group of parents complained about the classes.
The enrichment classes didn’t cost Shenendehowa anything and are offered to any school district that wants them, Planned Parenthood officials have said. The educators are trained and evaluated regularly and the program is certified by the state Department of Health.