Let’s have a look at faith-based abstinence as a component of health education in New Albany-Floyd County Schools. But first, just a bit of background to explain how the topic came to my attention.
Regular readers will recall that I am a proud member of the 2016-2017 Discover class at Leadership Southern Indiana. For those who are just tuning in, my column of August 25, 2016 told the story of how it came about.
Discover was a first-rate experience, and I’ll be forever grateful that Dr. Daniel Eichenberger not only talked me into it, but also provided sponsorship. I learned quite a lot and made more than a few lasting friends — like Missy Smith.
My sense is that these two friends of mine, Dan and Missy, are on polar opposite sides of a curriculum controversy, because while we recently were visiting Trieste, Missy posted this on social media.
“Did you all know that there is an abstinence program taught in health classes at New Albany High School?? I repeat…THERE IS A PURITY CULTURE, SEX SHAMING ABSTINENCE PROGRAM TAUGHT IN HEALTH CLASSES AT NAHS! I received no notice that this would happen. I would have opted ALL the way out of this BS. I am enraged! I have worked very hard to keep this far away from my child so she does not carry any of the trauma that so many of us carried out of our teen years.”
Later she offered a link to the PURE Initiative.
“Update: the group that comes to every school district in Southern Indiana is called the PURE Initiative. Their website is https://connect2pure.com/. One of their “instructors “ is the executive director of Youth for Christ of Southern Indiana, another is affiliated with the local faith based crisis pregnancy centers.”
The NA Confidential household understands Missy’s concern. We’re in complete harmony with her decision to challenge the school corporation’s decision to incorporate a faith-based approach. We support Missy 100%. Upon returning from vacation and getting my feet back on the ground, I asked her how it was going.
“While the board and administration responded with plans to have opt-out letters mailed to homes, this isn’t good enough. I will be going as far as we need to get this curriculum removed from the school system.”
Missy included the letter she sent to the school board, and it strikes me as fully appropriate that I turn over the remainder of today’s column inches to her for a detailed explanation of her position.
Here it is, lightly edited. When there are updates to provide, I’ll pass them along.
Esteemed Members of the School Board,
My name is Missy Smith. My daughter is a freshman at New Albany High School. She came home today and told me some very concerning things about what she experienced in her health class.
She truly thought it was funny, but as an adult with extensive experience with the type of program she described, I am appalled and outraged. My daughter explained that the PURE Initiative volunteers shared disjointed, unclear, and sometimes totally false information with her class, all based around abstinence.
First, let me acknowledge that I know a letter was sent home last week that included information on the program that would be visiting her class. My daughter says that when given the sheet, she was told this was an opportunity for parents to opt-out if they were uncomfortable with their children learning about sexuality. As we are a family that communicates freely and openly, and a family that supports evidenced-based learning, she knew we would not oppose her learning about sex and related health topics. In this, she is correct.
However, we do STRONGLY oppose any exposure to dangerous purity culture laden rhetoric, a biased curriculum that can attribute to children making unhealthy and potentially life-altering choices. A topic this important and potentially damaging should never be an “opt-out” situation. Parents should have to opt-in to their children attending at least the PURE Initiative section of the module.
My husband and I did some very cursory research on the PURE Initiative. As far as we can tell, every “instructor” is closely tied to a conservative Christian organization. For example, one is the executive director of Youth for Christ. This criticism is not coming from a faith-shaming family. I am a deacon in our Baptist church, where we attend multiple times per week. We are, however, against anything that seeks to weaponize faith in an attempt to control children’s behaviors.
While the PURE website states that data and evidenced based information is used, there is no supporting documentation that this is the case. From the examples my daughter provided today (apparently a video was shown that suggested that having premarital sex indirectly led to a person’s child being killed years later in a car accident?), I have serious doubts that this curriculum is reliable, accurate, and unbiased.
I have included below links from journals and reputable sources that scratch the surface of the dangers of abstinence-focused curriculum. As you will see in the excerpt below, this focus leads to the very outcomes (unplanned pregnancy and STI) these visitors say they seek to reduce:
The level of abstinence education (no provision, covered, promoted, stressed) was positively correlated with both teen pregnancy rates, indicating that abstinence education in the U.S. does not cause abstinence behavior. To the contrary, teens in states that prescribe more abstinence education are actually more likely to become pregnant.
Teens Deserve More than Abstinence-Only Education
Advocates reviewed all available evaluations of state-based abstinence-only programs and found that, of the 10 states with evaluations, few demonstrated any short-term benefits and none demonstrated any lasting, positive impact on young people’s attitudes, intentions, or behaviors. A few programs showed mild success at improving attitudes and intentions to abstain. No program was able to demonstrate a positive impact on sexual behavior over time.
Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Is a Failure
Two scientific review papers find abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and policies in the United States are ineffective because they do not delay sexual initiation or reduce sexual risk behaviors. According to the researchers, these programs also violate adolescent human rights, withhold medically accurate information, stigmatize or exclude many youth, reinforce harmful gender stereotypes, and undermine public health programs. Both papers are published online in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
At this point, my child has been exposed to this irresponsible curriculum, and feels equipped enough to remain in class, inoculated from the fear tactics that were employed today. I have faith that my daughter has learned enough from our discussions that she knows how to take charge of her emotional safety in this setting.
However, I do not know the other girls in the class (and let’s be honest, we know that in these programs the impetus and focus is on the girls as gatekeepers), and have grave concerns about the possible damage that may be inflicted upon them.
Sexual behavior, made of one’s own free will and not under coercion or as a response to trauma, does not cause a person to become broken. However, creating an environment that fails to provide comprehensive information (accurate and unbiased information on contraception and infection prevention) will lead to negative health outcomes.
Suggesting that children will be like “crumpled dollar bills” (illustration used in class today) if they have sex will lead to shame, disconnecting children from the community around them based on valid and normal choices. Creating shamed, disconnected human beings causes brokenness, not having sex.
Please know that I am aware that our very irresponsible and regressive legislature has created and passed legislation that allows this garbage to be taught in our public schools. I also know that the welcome extended to this group sends a message that the administration supports this teaching.
Any student who has this impression will have no choice but to believe, going forward, that their school officials will see them as broken or irresponsible for decisions that they make regarding their sexual health if they do not choose abstinence. These observations will not foster the safe and open environment, especially for girls who may need a non-judgmental place to land and process.
As a social worker, I know firsthand that all of our students do not have this safe environment at home, and really need to feel that school officials can offer this to them.
Again, I am aware that you may not have the autonomy to refuse the presence of these types of groups in the school, but based on what I heard today and my small bit of research on this specific group, I have grave concerns on the decision to welcome this biased and irresponsible group into the school setting at all. I do plan on sharing my concerns with our legislators.
Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with any comments or questions.
If readers have questions for Missy, send them to me via the usual channels and I’ll make sure she sees them.