Teaching Fear

IV. Local Sexuality Education Controversies

There are no complete and reliable data available on the extent to which abstinence-only programs are in use across the nation. The distributors of the Teen Aid programs and Sex Respect decline to provide information on how many districts are using their programs. Various press reports have cited unattributed estimates of their use in from 1,500 to 2,400 schools. It is apparent, however, that when there is strong Religious Right political influence on a school board or in a community, the use of a fear-based sexuality education curriculum will almost always be proposed, and often will be adopted. The following are some profiles of communities where these programs have been proposed and/or adopted.

Vista, California

The growing political strength of the Religious Right on the local school board has led to a vigorous debate about sexuality education in this community. In November 1992, John Tyndall and Joyce Lee were elected to the Vista Unified School District governing board, joining 1990-elected board member, Deidre Holliday, to form a Religious Right-backed majority on the five-member board. Both Tyndall and Lee were elected with the help of the Christian Voters League and were endorsed by the California Pro-Life Council and the Southern California Christian Times. Tyndall works for the Institute for Creation Research, a conservative "think tank" that advocates the teaching of Creationism as science.

In March of this year, the board voted 3-2 to adopt Sex Respect for 7th grade students. Sex Respect will replace Values and Choices, a comprehensive sexuality education course that has been in use in Vista since 1988. Before deciding to adopt Sex Respect, the board appointed a group of parents to an ad hoc committee, the Family Life Parent Advisory Committee, with the charge of reviewing Values and Choices and Sex Respect. According to Linda Rhoades, a moderate school board member, the parents' committee was "stacked," with conservative Christians comprising a 9-6 majority. As anticipated, the committee wrote in its majority report, "We don't believe Values and Choices stresses abstinence enough..." Vice chair of the parents' committee, Mark Ziminsky, said children are not "the ones to make decisions about their sex lives."

Prior to the board's adoption of Sex Respect, the district's attorney, William Wood Merrill, warned in a memorandum to Vista's Associate Superintendent of potential legal problems with using the abstinence-only curriculum. His legal analysis of Sex Respect raised serious questions about whether it complies with state requirements. Merrill planned to do a more detailed analysis of the problems with Sex Respect, but the board disregarded his opinion, adopted the curriculum, and voted to hire a new attorney, David Llewellyn, the director of the Western Center for Law and Religious Freedom (WCLRF), which has a long track record of right-wing activism. The board directed Llewellyn to spend a maximum of ten hours to bring Sex Respect into compliance with the California Education Code.

In late April, Llewellyn provided an analysis of Sex Respect in which he concluded that "with the use of appropriate supplementary materials. . .with some modifications of the texts. . . and with proper assurances and confirmation of the accuracy of the questioned aspects of the curriculum," Sex Respect "appears to comply" with California law. (emphasis added) In May, the board accepted Llewellyn's recommendations for modifications.

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Hemet, California

In this California community, a parent has persisted in her challenge to an abstinence-only curriculum, in spite of an unsympathetic school board. Sex Respect was introduced in Hemet in 1989 by Bonnie Park, a teacher in the Acacia Middle School, who has been a member of the school board since 1990. No formal procedure was followed, nor did the school board adopt the curriculum. A Hemet parent, Maureen Bryan, filed a complaint with the Hemet Unified School District in March 1993, requesting that Sex Respect be removed. Bryan had taken her son out of the program in 1992, saying the curriculum is "utterly inappropriate because of its religious bias, its overt counseling against abortion and its perpetuation of stereotypes that don't belong in a public environment." She identified a number of the provisions of the California Education Code she believed Sex Respect violated. She also cited a Shreveport, Louisiana court decision against Sex Respect (see discussion of this lawsuit below). Bonnie Park countered with the assertion that opponents of the curriculum were "on a mission to get rid of Sex Respect because it isn't politically correct. It doesn't promote the safe-sex agenda...the homosexual agenda."

While the school district's attorney, Karen Gilyard, has conceded that Sex Respect violates California's Education Code and may encroach on the separation of church and state, she has also cited a Code provision allowing a school district to continue to use instructional materials acquired "in good faith" that are subsequently found to be in violation of the Code. This provision is to apply only when alternative material cannot be found immediately, and only has effect for the duration of that school year. "Accordingly," wrote Gilyard, "the 1990 edition of the Sex Respect curriculum should only be used for the 1993-94 academic year." In December 1993, the board voted to continue teaching Sex Respect for the remainder of the 1993-94 school year.

In January 1994, Bryan filed a written appeal with the school board, asking that Sex Respect be removed from the schools immediately, arguing that an alternative curriculum from the Riverside County Health Department was available and had been approved by Hemet in 1990. In February, by a vote of 4-3, the board adopted a new sex education policy, requiring an advisory committee to develop a curriculum for the next school year. To date, the board has not taken action on the curriculum proposed by the committee. Bonnie Park has continued to advocate on behalf of Sex Respect. The board has refused to state officially (as Maureen Bryan has requested) that Sex Respect will not be used after this year.

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Lake County, Florida

In the Lake County school district in Tavares, Florida, where those affiliated with the Religious Right have held a majority on the school board since 1992, there is an attempt to replace the current sexuality education curriculum for grades
9-12 with either Teen Aid's Sexuality, Commitment and Family or Facing Reality, the high school counterpart to Sex Respect.

The board's links with national Religious Right organizations are overt: two of the board members belong to Citizens for Excellence in Education; the board's chairwoman works for Concerned Women for America of Florida; and Christian Coalition voter guides helped elect some of the current office-holders. Since the 1992 election, the board has pursued an active political agenda, voting to replace the school's attorney with a conservative state senator, cutting back the district's Head Start program, voting to teach that American culture is superior to all others, and eliminating a sexuality education program for mentally handicapped students.

According to a district employee, in October 1993, the board voted to disband the district's advisory committee on sex education in order to appoint a new committee with "similar views to the Board's." The 15-member committee, a group of parents and teachers that work to develop sexuality education curricula, had been in existence since a 1980 referendum when Lake County citizens mandated that sexuality education be taught in the public schools. Not surprisingly, the new advisory committee "has problems" with the school's current 9-12 curriculum, Sexuality: A Responsible Approach, and a supplemental HIV/AIDS education pamphlet.

The new advisory committee is now in the process of looking at Facing Reality and the Teen Aid program, Sexuality, Commitment and Family. Focus on the Family, a large national Religious Right organization, sent the committee articles and other materials that recommended the Teen Aid program. If the committee approves one of the curricula, it will then go to the board for a vote, which likely will result in adoption of an abstinence-only program. In the meantime, one board member suggested that the current 9-12 program be "put on the backburner" for the rest of the semester until they adopt a new curriculum. This proposal to remove sexuality education altogether was not acted on, since Florida state law mandates that HIV/AIDS education be taught in high schools.

In two communities, the sexuality education debate has landed in the courts:

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Shreveport, Louisiana

A group of citizens in Shreveport have mounted a successful court challenge to abstinence-only programs. The controversy began in September of 1992, when the Caddo Parish school board in Shreveport voted 7-5 to adopt the fear-based abstinence-only curricula, Sex Respect and Facing Reality. Prior to that vote, the district was using a curriculum developed by a local university that included information about HIV/AIDS and contraception.

The use of Sex Respect and Facing Reality was challenged by a group of Caddo Parish residents, self described as "young, old, white, black, Jewish, Christian, agnostic, divorced, married, single, rich, poor, straight, gay, Republican, Democrat and independent citizens of Caddo Parish," who filed suit in November 1992. The plaintiffs made several charges: first, that the curricula are filled with inaccurate medical statements and omissions regarding condoms, pregnancy, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases; second, that they violate Louisiana state law by including religious references; third, that they promote stereotypes; and finally, that they discriminate on the basis of race, culture and economic status.

The distributors of the curricula, Kathleen Sullivan's Committee on the Status of Women, intervened in the lawsuit. Sullivan said, "It's censorship, clear and simple...They will go into court and defend all the very vulgar trash material...and spend so much time and effort trying to get rid of a simple good health message." A similar opinion was heard from Phyllis Schlafly, whose Eagle Forum has long encouraged its members to press for removal from schools of materials deemed "unsuitable." But in this case, Schlafly said, "Censorship is alive and kicking in America. It has reared its ugly head in a courtroom in Shreveport, Louisiana..." She accused those who oppose the curricula of having "a financial interest in a promiscuous lifestyle..."

In March 1993, Sex Respect and Facing Reality were found by the court to violate Louisiana law in that they taught specific religious beliefs and contained medically inaccurate information. After the judge allowed the district to continue using the curricula with the offending passages blacked out, he learned that not all passages had been deleted, and that students were able to read the ones that had been, because the school district had not effectively blacked them out. The judge subsequently held the school district in contempt of court. The school board appealed both the judgment against the curricula and the contempt ruling. In late March of this year, an appellate court reversed the contempt ruling, but affirmed the substance of the judgment against Sex Respect.

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Jacksonville, Florida

The Duval County school board's decision to adopt an abstinence-only curriculum has led to a legal clash involving national organizations. In 1990, the school board voted 4-3 to adopt the Teen Aid curriculum, Me, My World, My Future, a course for the 7th grade, rather than a comprehensive sexuality education program. By mid-1992, the Duval County school board had spent $92,000 on the curriculum, even though many in the community argued that it does not comply with Florida state law because it promotes a sectarian viewpoint and contains inadequate and inaccurate information.

In May 1992, Planned Parenthood and six Jacksonville families filed suit against the Duval County school board, challenging its use of the Teen Aid curriculum. Linda Lanier, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood of Northeast Florida, argued that, "Teen Aid is factually and medically inaccurate, incomplete, gender-biased, racially biased and presents one sectarian viewpoint." Nonetheless, the district has continued to use the Teen Aid curriculum while the lawsuit is pending.

Teen Aid, Inc. was allowed to intervene and become a party in the lawsuit. A number of Religious Right groups also came to the defense of the school board and the Teen Aid program. Jay Sekulow, primary attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the legal arm of televangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, has been involved in the lawsuit, advising the school board and Teen Aid, Inc. at the ACLJ's expense. Pat Robertson also went to Jacksonville to help the Christian Coalition of Duval County raise money for defense of the lawsuit.

In preparation for trial, lawyers are now conducting depositions of potential witnesses. Upcoming school board elections in Duval County could change the make-up of the board, which might in turn result in a change in the sexuality education policy.

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