The Sitka/Southeast Alaska Coalition for Life Tuesday night presented the school board with a letter signed by 150 residents, expressing shock over the participation of Planned Parenthood, and recommending the postponement of instruction in human sexuality until a consensus can be reached on how best to teach it.
Ed Gray was spokesman for the group. The topic was not on the agenda. The School Board took comments under persons to be heard.
“We were shocked to learn that Planned Parenthood was teaching a sex education class in the Sitka School District. Planned Parenthood is the largest abortion provider in the United States, and promotes a form of sex education which, among other things, considers the abortion pill and surgical abortion to be forms of birth control. As you’re aware, abortion destroys a human life.”
Yvonne Corduan had not signed the group letter, but submitted one of her own. She also objected to the involvement of Planned Parenthood, and favored an approach to sex education based on moral values.
“My generation, of which many of you are a part of also, is at fault for much of the social chaos we are experiencing today. Our generation decided that the moral values and expectations of our parents were a bit old-fashioned and stilted, so we tossed them out and entered the generation of free love, be true to yourself, do your own thing. What we did not realize is that freedom is not the liberty to do what we want.”
There was also testimony from two members of the public, Jeanine Brooks and Davy Lubin, in strong support of comprehensive health education. And testimony from one student, Michael Boos, who asked for more youth participation in developing policy on the subject.
The anti-Planned Parenthood sentiment was also evident at a Blatchley PAC meeting on the subject in February. Yet then — as now — Planned Parenthood did not develop or implement the Blatchley health curriculum.
Pacific High co-principal Sarah Ferrency is a board member of Planned Parenthood Northwest.
“That organization has been vilified in ways that are not accurate. I work tirelessly every day on behalf of our young people, and I work more with people who are facing these issues in a very head-on way than many people do. And I have strong experience to support the education that we are providing. I also see a lot of common ground. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with what’s being taught. I would encourage you to go talk with Mr. White and ask to see it. Because it’s doing what you’re asking it to do: All of these programs are abstinence-based.”
I spoke with Blatchley principal Ben White following the board meeting. He confirmed that the two programs, FLASH in the 6th grade and Wyman TOP in the 7th grade were taught in the fall. FLASH stands for Family Life and Sexual Health. The program was created by the King County Health Department in Seattle, and is used widely across Alaska. TOP stands for Teen Outreach Program. Wyman is a St. Louis-based non-profit whose program has been endorsed by the US Department of Health. I found detailed information about both in a three-minute search on the internet.
Both FLASH and TOP require a trained instructor. In Sitka, the only qualified instructor was Emily Reilly, who was also director of the local Planned Parenthood office.
Kristen Homer is a registered nurse and Blatchley parent who offered some short-term health instruction in the last school year. She told the board that TOP was more comprehensive.
“If you look at the curriculum in the TOPS program, what it went over was values clarification, relationships, communication, assertiveness, goal-setting, decision-making, and human development and sexuality. We all know that sex doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The more tools that individuals have to make good decisions, to communicate, to keep themselves out of bad decisions — the more likely they are to keep from getting pregnant.”
FLASH and TOP were discontinued at Blatchley when Emily Reilly became unavailable to teach them, and principal Ben White could find no qualified replacement. Instead, he sent his two physical education teachers to Anchorage for a 2-day training in a program called Fourth R. The “R” stands for Relationships. The program was developed in Canada and has been adopted by the Alaska Department of Education.
White says Blatchley 8th-graders have been receiving Fourth R instruction every Thursday since January from either his PE instructors or Elena Gustafson, a staff member at the SAFV shelter.
In persons-to-be-heard, the school board can not act on, or reply to, comments made by the public. Some members instead responded during their reports.
Tonia Rioux said she respected the views of the parents who spoke on both sides of the issue, but she stood behind the programs. Twenty-three years ago, Rioux herself was in middle school in Sitka.
“In my two years at Blatchley I saw no less than four girls get pregnant. The majority of them were from people who were over 21. That’s a problem. Those girls needed to know healthy relationships. They needed something more than someone popping in for a week teaching about sex education. And to me, what was exciting about the program was that was what it was offering. More than just how to prevent STD’s, or Here’s how to prevent getting pregnant. It was Here’s how to have healthy relationships, Here’re tools for healthy communication.”
Board member Cass Pook echoed some of Rioux’s remarks, but said that people all held different core beliefs. She felt that as a member of the faith community it was possible to move forward and find something that everyone could agree on.
Superintendent Steve Bradshaw, however, did not want to build up expectations around full agreement. He had recently had a 90-minute meeting with the Sitka Coalition for Life.
“I’m hoping that we can do what everybody’s asking for and get together and find a solution that will meet the needs of the community. I hesitate to use the word ‘consensus,’ because I’m not sure that in today’s society that we’re going to be able to get there.”
Bradshaw said that honest conversation about what was best for kids was what “education is all about.” The board offered to schedule more time in the future to discuss the issue further.