Just Don't Do It

How religious organizations spread dangerous misinformation through sex-ed programs in public schools

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ix years ago, a charismatic speaker in his twenties visited Alexis Corcoran’s Sycamore Junior High School health class to teach lessons on sex-ed. The guest instructor enthusiastically taught the eighth-graders facts about contraception, relationships and sexually transmitted diseases in a series of presentations she still remembers today.

It wasn’t until last year, during her freshman year at Wellesley College, that Corcoran realized how skewed the program she observed had been.

During a recent interview in Cincinnati during winter break from college, Corcoran recalled some of the stories she heard. They were shaming, she says, and based largely on religious principles.

Corcoran remembers an activity involving the instructor putting a Tootsie Roll in his mouth, only to wrap it back up and put it in the bag with the other ones. Students were dared to reach in and pick one out.

“They went around and said, ‘Who would want to put their hand in, because you might pick out the used Tootsie Roll,’ ” Corcoran says, “a metaphor, obviously, for — if you have sex, you might have sex with someone who’s ‘used.’ ”

Although Sycamore is a public school, the five-day sex-ed program was taught by a Catholic-based nonprofit called Healthy Visions using a controversial abstinence-only approach that leaves out — at times even disputes — important facts about birth control and safe sex.   

“I walked away from that program thinking condoms didn’t protect against STDs, and I wasn’t super convinced they protected against pregnancy,” says Corcoran, now 19. “I understood that was the purpose of them, but I wasn’t sure that was actually effective, and people I talked to said the same thing.”       

Lessons like those Corcoran experienced are common in abstinence-only sex-ed programs, which have ruled American classrooms for the past 20 years. They aim to get as many kids as possible to stay abstinent until marriage by warning them of emotional, psychological and physical risks associated with sex, many of which are disputed by public health experts and academic research.   

Their reach measures far and wide across the Tristate.        

Healthy Visions and two other organizations with religious ties are teaching abstinence-only health classes inside more than 50 local public schools in the Greater Cincinnati area, along with at least 15 charter and private schools, a CityBeat analysis of public records found. Their coverage area extends from Lakota Local Schools in Liberty Township to Gallatin County Schools in Covington; Southwest Local Schools in West Harrison to Clermont Northeastern Schools. They dot the inner-I-275 landscape, too, spending time inside the Mount Healthy, Indian Hill, Deer Park and Milford school districts, among others.   

The same organization that taught Corcoran’s class in 2010 will teach similar lessons at 16 middle schools and high schools in the Cincinnati area during the current academic year. Over the past two months, Healthy Visions has taught inside Lakota East Freshman, Mount Healthy Junior/Senior High School and Fairfield Freshman, according to its online schedule.

Its antiquated philosophies are being funded in part by taxpayer money. For the past two decades, the federal government has poured more than $1.5 billion into these types of organizations across the country. In 2015, state governments received $75 million dedicated to promoting abstinence until marriage to youth. This school year, Ohio and Kentucky combined took in more than $3 million, which state health departments distributed straight to religiously affiliated organizations after giving their curricula a stamp of approval.   

All of this is still happening despite more than a decade’s worth of research showing that abstinence-only programs are actually ineffective at keeping kids sex-free.     

“They’re shame-based. They’re fear-based. They’re stigmatizing, and, quite frankly, these programs don’t work,” says Diana Rhodes, director of public policy at Advocates for Youth, an advocacy group dedicated to sex education.   

If young people aren’t absorbing the message of abstinence from these groups, then what exactly are they learning about sex?    

The reality is troubling.   

Publicly viewable lessons on Healthy Visions’ website line up with the Tootsie Roll exercise Corcoran described — metaphors about what premarital sex does to one’s body that involve worn-out tape. Other lessons categorize students into gender stereotypes by encouraging boys to be “protectors” instead of “predators” and girls to be “treasures” instead of “targets.”

Public health experts have long said learning about sexuality and safe sex is incredibly important in preparing kids for sexual activity in the future, whether it begins in their teens or after they’re married. But in Ohio and Kentucky, sex-ed curriculum is far different than what is recommended by federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control, which promote more comprehensive lessons than the ones currently being approved for public school classrooms by state agencies.    

“The years between (ages) 10 and 19 is a time of a lot of change,” says Heather Boonstra, director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute, which studies sexual health. “And I guess the challenge for all of us is to reach and support young people during that time of change and prepare them to be sexually healthy adults.”    

In many Cincinnati schools, that’s just not happening — as Corcoran witnessed at Sycamore.    

“I think Sycamore’s a really great high school. Math, science, all of my core classes — they were awesome classes,” Corcoran says. “So I was confused as to why the school wasn’t holding the same level of academics in the health classroom.”     

The fact that it took Corcoran five years to figure out how misguided she had been in eighth grade is only one side of the coin. The other is just how easily these religious organizations are getting into public schools, which are under consistent pressure to adhere to state mandates across the board. When offered free sex-ed lessons that satisfy the educational code, many accept.

But the abstinence-only stronghold goes beyond the power of teachers, school administrators and parents. Political forces have long worked to put religiously informed, ineffective abstinence-only lessons in local classrooms, and they don’t seem to be going away any time soon.   

Ineffective Methods

All three organizations teaching abstinence-only education in Greater Cincinnati schools — Healthy Visions and Maximum Freedom, Inc., in Ohio and New Hope Center in Kentucky — are current recipients of a federal grant known as the Title V State Abstinence Education Grant Program, a $75 million a year funding stream that has supported abstinence-only programs since 1996. That financial support comes despite reams of studies showing such programs are ineffective.

For 2015, Ohio took in $2.3 million and Kentucky received $978,000 in Title V funding, which each state matched with 75 percent in state funds, per the grant’s requirement. (CityBeat limited research for this story to Ohio and Kentucky. Indiana took in just over $1 million in abstinence-only funds in 2015.)

Recipients of Title V money must adhere to strict eight-point guidelines that require teaching abstinence outside marriage as the expected standard. They are required to say that premarital sex is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects — statements that have no scientific backing. Title V grantees are prohibited from advocating for any form of contraception.

Several public health organizations have formally opposed Title V’s guidelines.     

According to the American Public Health Association, the guidelines put educators in an ethical dilemma by forcing them to withhold medical information that could help prevent students from getting an STD.

“While good patient care is built upon notions of informed consent and free choice, AOE (abstinence-only education) programs are inherently coercive by withholding information needed to make informed choices,” says the American Public Health Association in its position statement for the programs on its website. “As defined by the U.S. government’s own funding requirements, these programs are required to withhold information on contraception and other aspects of human sexuality and to promote scientifically questionable positions.”      

The American Medical Association also opposes the sole use of Title V programs in classrooms, according to a position statement on its website.    

In 2007, Congress released a nine-year, nearly $8 million independent study that found four Title V-funded programs were ineffective in delaying teen sex.       

Around the same time, several states conducted studies of their own Title V programs and found similar results.      

“Findings indicate that youth in the program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex,” the congressionally funded report says, “and, among those who reported having had sex, they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age.”

Public health organizations like the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association and the Centers for Disease Control recommend “comprehensive” sex-ed programs. These programs tend to cover everything from condoms to healthy relationships, human reproductive anatomy and LGBTQ issues, along with the benefits of abstinence. 

They don’t qualify for Title V funding because they typically teach how to obtain and use different contraception methods, which isn’t allowed under the grant’s requirements.

“(There is) this false perception that comprehensive sexuality education doesn’t include information about abstinence, which it absolutely does,” says Jesseca Boyer, vice president for policy, interim president and CEO at the nonprofit Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS).

Research has found that comprehensive programs tend to be more successful in doing what abstinence-only programs are trying to do — delay teen sex and prevent teen pregnancy. A 2008 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that abstinence-only programs did not reduce the probability of vaginal intercourse for students, but comprehensive programs did marginally. Students who went through comprehensive programs were significantly less likely to report getting pregnant.

“A lot of the pushback that people tend to hear with comprehensive sex-ed is, ‘Well, you’re teaching these kids about sex, they’re more likely to be sexually active,’ ” says Amanda Lynch, field service assistant professor of health promotion and education at the University of Cincinnati. “With the research, we know actually the opposite is true. They’re more likely to wait to have sex until they feel they’re ready.”

The CDC recommends that schools teach 16 different topics to prevent teen pregnancy, HIV and STDs starting at the middle-school level. One topic is on the benefits of being sexually abstinent, while five are on contraception, including how to obtain condoms and how to use them.      

Ohio and Kentucky high schools aren’t even close to covering all of these topics, according to a 2015 survey by the CDC. Just 32.2 percent in Ohio and 53.7 percent in Kentucky taught all the recommended lessons. At the middle school level, these states fared even worse — 12.6 percent of Ohio schools and just 3.7 percent of Kentucky middle schools, the lowest percentage in the country, taught all 16 lessons.

“We’re really not doing a great job of teaching our kids before they become sexually active, which starts to happen throughout adolescence,” says Stephanie Zaza, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, “and what we really want to do is prepare them for that."

Meanwhile, there’s actually a good deal of consensus when it comes to what parents want their kids to be taught about sex.     

A 2008 survey by the Ohio Department of Health found that 80 percent of Ohio parents said they support lessons on abstinence until marriage. Seventy-nine percent support lessons on contraception and condoms, and 70 percent said they support lessons on safe-sex practices and condom demonstrations.        

“(Americans) may not be very comfortable with teens having sex, but they’re practical,” says Boonstra of the Guttmacher Institute. “They say, ‘Yeah, but I know it’s going to happen and, therefore, I do want my son or daughter to know and understand how to prevent pregnancy.’ ”     

So if data shows comprehensive sex-ed is more effective, recommended by health experts and has the support of most parents, why do so many local schools continue to choose abstinence-only programs?

Not Data or Parents, but Politics    

Politicians and state agencies have made it easy for abstinence-only organizations to get into public school classrooms.

Benita Decker, adolescent health initiatives coordinator for the Kentucky Department for Public Health, is in charge of Kentucky’s Title V funds.   

She says taking Title V money is a way to secure additional financial support for sex education in a state where these programs can be limited to non-existent. In Kentucky high schools, she says, many kids get just one week of sex education in ninth-grade health class, and that’s it.          

Because of the controversial restrictions attached to the Title V grant, Decker says she only allows it to fund programs taught in middle schools.      

“People were very much against the abstinence grant,” she says. “And I wasn’t going to turn money down, so we took that and made it a wonderful program.”   

The Ohio Department of Health, which is in charge of distributing Ohio’s Title V funding, declined an interview request for this story.   

In both Ohio and Kentucky, the state department of education barely regulates health education. Ohio goes beyond just failing to provide schools with guidance on what to teach for sex-ed — it is actually mandated by Ohio law that the state has no health education standards, which would guide schools on what to teach in health class. Kentucky’s state standards only require that abstinence be stressed.   

Ohio’s sole legal requirement on what schools must teach for sex education is an education code that requires schools to teach venereal disease — or STDs — by stressing prevention through abstinence until marriage.

Ohio Democrats have been trying to change the state’s limited education code for at least a decade without success against state Republicans.     

Ohio State Sen. Capri Cafaro (D-Hubbard) first co-sponsored a piece of legislation called the Ohio Prevention First Act in 2008. It would change the code to give local school boards more guidance in developing an age-appropriate curriculum for sex education, including teaching contraception, if they choose. Sen. Cafaro reintroduced the legislation this year, where it is waiting in the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee.

“There really isn’t any guidance at all,” Cafaro says, “so the fact of the matter is, in the absence of guidance, curriculum may not necessarily be medically accurate.”   

In Ohio, Title V-funded programs end up being an easy way for some administrators to satisfy Ohio’s requirement on venereal diseases — they’re a relatively convenient supplement, typically involving one-hour lessons over the course of four or five days. All 10 school districts that responded to CityBeat’s request for information on how much they pay Title-V-funded organizations to teach in their classrooms said the programs were free.

“The schools are pretty strapped for cash,” says Adrienne Gavula, regional office director for the ACLU of Ohio, “and oftentimes if the money is only for abstinence-only programming, then that’s what’s going to drive programming in the school."

Ohio does take funding for comprehensive programs from the federal Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP). But it only allows the grant to fund programs for foster care youth and kids transitioning out of the justice system, ages 14 to 19. The PREP program requires its grantees use federally approved, medically accurate, evidence-based sex-ed programs. Kentucky uses some of this funding for high school programs available to the general population.

Ohio state legislators are currently making it harder for nonprofits like Planned Parenthood to obtain and keep this funding.   

Gov. John Kasich this week signed into law a bill that will strip Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio of the $300,000 PREP grant it received from the Department of Health to teach its sex-education program in 18 counties.   

Health education experts at the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital developed the program Planned Parenthood uses.   

Erin Smiley, a health educator at Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio, testified against the bill in front of Ohio’s Senate Committee on Government Oversight on Jan. 26, the day before Senate Republicans passed it in a vote of 22-8, directly across party lines.

“When I first started working with PREP and Planned Parenthood nearly four years ago, I was amazed at the number of myths and inaccuracies the adults working with or educating youth had about sexual health,” Smiley said. “If they talked about sexual health at all, they used shame and guilt-driven scare tactics to try and tell them not to do it.”

Even President Barack Obama has tried to eliminate Title-V funding. He was going to let the the program expire in 2010, but congressional Republicans brought it back by inserting it into the Affordable Care Act as part of a compromise that yielded Obama’s PREP program.   

“Ultimately, for a very brief moment in time in 2010, the Title V program did expire,” says Boyer of SIECUS, “and then did reemerge as part of an 11th-hour negotiation during health reform as sort of the cost of creating the new Personal Responsibility Education Program.”

Misleading Messages

Besides the fact the programs are ineffective, there’s another troubling aspect to the government largesse provided to organizations funded by Title V programs: Many are religiously affiliated and teaching lessons in public schools based on biblical principles.   

Technically, it is legal for a faith-based organization to teach sex-ed in a public school, but there are a lot of gray areas.   

A group of wide-ranging political and religious organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Christian Legal Society and National Association of Evangelicals, have agreed upon guidelines governing religion in schools.   

Created in part because constitutional law can be murky when it comes to First Amendment rights and the separation of church and state, the document includes 18 numbered sections, including guidelines on student prayers, teaching about religion, student assignments and teaching values.   

According to the document, teachers, administrators and outside organizations may teach “civic virtues” commonly associated with religion, such as honesty, good citizenship, civility and virtues of moral conviction. They may not, however, teach them as “religious tenets.”

The three organizations teaching abstinence-only education in Greater Cincinnati appear to be carefully navigating these parameters, but they are not shy about the influence religion has on their motivation to teach abstinence.   

Healthy Visions health educator Russell Proctor — who Corcoran says taught her eighth-grade class at Sycamore Junior High — told PBS’s Judith Valente the following during a 2012 “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” TV segment: “I’m taking the message of Jesus to people. I just can’t mention his name. So, like, when I talk about, ‘Hey, you’re forgiven for your past and I don’t hold any of it against you.’ For a lot of kids, that’s a new message, but that’s actually an old message. That’s a Jesus message.”

New Hope Center uses its Facebook page as a megaphone for the pro-life movement and Planned Parenthood as a punching bag.             

“We are fighting the good fight!” one of the center’s volunteer teachers wrote in its spring 2014 newsletter. “I feel blessed not only to share the importance of abstinence until marriage but also to be able to pour the love of Christ into our teens.” 

Maximum Freedom says it has no religious affiliation, but its founder, Cathy St. John, has ties to a Christian-based, pro-life pregnancy center called Life Forward Pregnancy Care of Cincinnati. St. John was the former abstinence education coordinator there before she started Maximum Freedom in 2010.        

St. John, a registered nurse, left the organization last year because of family issues, according to Maximum Freedom’s current executive director. But the organization still uses one of the same programs for its high school classes that St. John used while working for Life Forward. It’s called “Making Abstinence Possible.”    

Writer Jason Fagone described sitting in on one of St. John’s classes at Anderson High School for a 2003 Cincinnati Magazine article.       

“Everything about St. John’s presentation — from the standard set of gross-out slides (pus-oozing syphilitic chancres and the like) to the dire statistics about teen STD rates — was calibrated to cultivate fear,” he wrote. “If you do have sex before marriage, St. John implied, not only will you suffer emotional pain, and not only might you get an STD — you probably will.”

New Hope Center is scheduled to teach in 10 Northern Kentucky middle schools this year, including Gallatin County Middle School, Campbell County Middle School and Grant County Middle School.   

Its state-approved curriculum, called “Choosing the Best,” prompts students to ask their parents shaming, one-sided questions, such as, “Did you know anyone who was pregnant when you were at school? How did you feel about that person?” and “Why don’t people talk about the emotional damage that sexual activity can cause?”

In a video available on Healthy Visions’ website, curriculum developer and health presenter Dean Kirker, who was also a minister at a Presbyterian church, explains that oxytocin, the chemical in the brain that helps people bond to one another, diminishes as one has more sexual partners, information he says comes from the Department of Health and Human Services.

This medically unsupported fact actually does come from an official channel. It was famously spread by a controversial figure from the George W. Bush-era. In 2006, Dr. Eric Keroack was running a Christian pregnancy center in Massachusetts that didn’t believe in contraception when Bush appointed him to head the federal Health and Human Services’ Title X Family Planning Program. Keroack resigned from the position after less than a year, but not before the Massachusetts board of medicine issued him two formal warnings for prescribing medication to people who were not his patients and providing mental health counseling without training.   

Healthy Visions continues to teach Keroack’s now-debunked warnings. In its lesson, Kirker sticks a piece of tape to himself until it is eventually unable to stick, representing the way the ability to bond supposedly weakens as the number of sexual partners increases.              

Dean Kirker, Healthy Visions curriculum developer and health presenter

He then asks, “You may be asking yourself the same question right now, ‘What’s your tape look like right now?’ ... Because it’s going to be one or the other. It’s going to be sticky and it’s going to be able to have that or it’s not. And that’s made or broken by how you live right now.”   

This tape example left a lasting impression on at least one student, according to anonymous feedback published on Healthy Visions’ website: “The speaker actually gave me that piece of tape and I still have it today. I came up to him afterwards and cried in his arms. I will never forget that moment.”   

Maximum Freedom supplies a similar lesson. On its website, one of the bullet points for its high school program says students will learn the “emotional bonding that sexual activity creates, neurotransmitters responsible and affects (sic) it can have on future relationships.”

According to advocates against these types of programs, a major problem with them is not what they’re teaching, but what they are leaving out. They also fail to tailor their programs to reach all young people, including gay and transgender kids.      

“A lot of abstinence-only programs align pretty heavily with gender stereotypes and are pretty insensitive and unresponsive to the needs of sexually active LGBT youth,” says Gavula of ACLU of Ohio. “Many abstinence-only curricula also have pretty heavy religious undertones to it.”  

Oblivious Local Schools

Based on recent responses to dozens of interviews and public information requests, local schools seem to be putting little thought into their sex-ed programs. At some schools, administrators don’t even know outsiders are teaching abstinence-only classes. Others defer sex-ed curriculum decisions to lower-level health and science teachers.   

Last fall, Rapid Run Middle School sent a letter to parents explaining a program Maximum Freedom would present from Oct. 20-23. The letter explained to parents that Maximum Freedom’s “sexual-risk avoidance” program would cover issues like goal-setting, decision-making skills, medically accurate information on STDs and contraceptive information.       

“We are excited to offer this excellent program to our students in an effort to equip our students with important knowledge that will help them make healthy lifestyle choices,” reads the letter, signed by Rapid Run Middle School’s eighth-grade science teachers.

After the first day of the program, one parent emailed Rapid Run Middle School Principal Travis Hunt upset with information brought back from the class. CityBeat obtained the email through a public records request, but Oak Hills School District refused to disclose the name of the parent who wrote the email, citing federal privacy laws.   

The parent referred to Maximum Freedom as an “abstinence-only purity pusher group.”       

“It is wrong to suggest to children that they will not finish their education, have meaningful careers or be able to pursue their dreams unless they wait and have sex with the person they are going to marry,” the email reads. “What century is this?”     

Rapid Run Middle School Assistant Principal Will Beinkemper says the school is just trying to stay in compliance with Ohio’s educational code.       

“This is not a district appeal to ‘These are our values,’ ” Beinkemper says. “We follow the guidance like we do with any form of education in public schools.”   

Several schools’ responses to questions about their sex-ed programs were copied straight from information provided by Maximum Freedom.   

“MFI teaches curriculum according to Section 3313.6011 of the Ohio Revised Code with the support of our school, parents, and community,” wrote Regina Morgan, director of curriculum and instruction at the Little Miami Local School District in response to a public information request. Public information officers at Indian Hill and Deer Park sent the exact same statement.  

Mount Healthy and Norwood also cited the Ohio education code as their reasoning for partnering with an outside organization.

Many schools that utilize these programs would prefer not to discuss their partnerships. CityBeat requested interviews with representatives of more than a dozen school districts, most of which allowed the teachings in more than one school. Two declined and six never responded. Several public information officers asked for more information about the request, then did not answer follow-up emails. 

* Matched by 75-percent in state funding per Title V requirements.
** Batavia Middle School also partners with Healthy Visions.

CityBeat requested from 34 school districts any feedback from parents or community members, negative or positive, regarding partnerships with Healthy Visions, Maximum Freedom or New Hope Center.   

The request yielded four complaints to districts and no correspondence in support.      

One parent whose child attended Milford Junior High School wrote in December 2014 to health and physical education teacher Eric Seibert that she was concerned with the program because it did not reflect her family’s values.      

 

“(My son) felt like she (guest speaker) imposed her opinion about sex only being between a man and a woman, and the other item that caught my attention is that he got the message that you should only have sex with who you marry,” the parent wrote.

Seibert declined to be interviewed for this story but said in an email that his experience with Maximum Freedom has been “nothing but positive.”        

New Richmond superintendent Adam Bird said sex education is an important topic, but that he hadn’t thought about the school’s partnership with Maximum Freedom until he saw CityBeat’s request for feedback on the program.        

“When people don’t complain about it, I don’t think about it,” Bird said, noting that he spends a lot of time focused on requirements like standardized testing.    

Lakota Local School District at first denied using Healthy Visions’ program even though five of its schools are listed on the organization’s publically viewable online schedule.       

After being informed of the schedule, the school district responded that it had indeed learned that several classes use Healthy Visions speakers.        

“A couple teachers might be inviting a speaker from the program to address a specific unit during the year, but as I understand it they are not using the program in its entirety,” said Lauren Boettcher, Lakota’s executive director of media and community relations, in an email.       

Others said they had approved of the abstinence-only programs based on the recommendation of their health teachers.  

Melissa Wynn of Union, Ky., whose son attends Gray Middle School in the Boone County School District, went in front of the school’s site-based council prior to the 2014-2015 school year and presented evidence against New Hope Center’s abstinence-only program. The council cut the partnership.   

Wynn learned about it after the school was unable to answer her questions about its sex-ed program. She asked a neighbor’s daughter to describe her experience with New Hope Center’s lessons, which uses the Choosing the Best curriculum.

“It was obviously the mission and the focus of this whole program just to say ‘Just don’t do it,’ not to really go into explanations of things,” Wynn says.       

Fifteen area private and charter schools are also using these programs. Healthy Visions and Maximum Freedom will teach this year at St. Ursula Academy, Ursuline Academy, Archbishop Moeller and LaSalle High School, according to information obtained from the Ohio Department of Health.   

Healthy Visions teaches at Cincinnati Public Schools’ School for Creative and Performing Arts, the only CPS school that partners with Maximum Freedom or Healthy Visions, according to records provided by the Ohio Department of Health. CPS uses Glencoe Health textbooks from New York-based manufacturer McGraw-Hill, says Janet Walsh, director of the CPS Department of Public Affairs. Glencoe’s books are limited when it comes to the topic of sex, offering only abstinence as a means of preventing STDs. This lesson is enough to satisfy Ohio’s education code.   

Shifting Strategies, Changing Language

The organizations pushing abstinence-only education are likely aware that major health organizations favor comprehensive education, based on recent shifts in their language. Several have adopted wording from comprehensive programs, rebranding their own as “values-neutral,” “medically accurate,” “holistic” and “shame-free.”     

Ascend, one of the biggest national organizations that lobbies for abstinence-centered programs, was known until recently as the National Abstinence Education Association. It started ditching the term “abstinence only” for “sexual-risk avoidance.” Ascend’s website says it is more important to focus on teaching kids to “avoid” the risks associated with sex by waiting until marriage, instead of “reducing them” through birth control — an approach contrary to the recommendations of the CDC and the AMA.         

“The tactics have changed in part over time,” Boonstra of the Guttmacher Institute says, “in part because this message of ‘evidence-based’ was pretty successful at knocking down these programs. So they themselves — they being those who support these abstinence-only programs — started to embrace language in order to make it more palatable to a wider audience.”     

When asked by CityBeat why an abstinence-centered approach was the best choice, Kristen Smith, Maximum Freedom’s executive director, cited Ohio’s education code, saying: “Well, the state of Ohio obviously feels that it’s a better approach since it is the state-mandated approach to sex education.”     

New Hope Center’s sexual risk avoidance director, Marla Specht, responded to the same question saying that its program is comprehensive.

“Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA) education is a comprehensive, age-appropriate, medically-accurate and factually-based course of study which provides the knowledge and tools necessary for young people to make informed, healthy decisions about both sexual and non-sexual relationships which will help them reach their full life-potential,” Specht wrote in an email (emphasis hers).   

Healthy Visions Executive Director Carole Adlard did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.    

Corcoran, the college student from Sycamore, wrote a letter to Sycamore Community Schools’ Board of Education last June requesting that it move away from Healthy Visions and replace the lessons with one of the comprehensive programs recommended by SIECUS.       

Sycamore, which uses Maximum Freedom for its high school program and Healthy Visions for its middle school program, didn’t seem to fully comprehend the difference, based on its response to Corcoran.      

“Our district holds the same philosophical belief as you; our students deserve a comprehensive health education,” wrote Karen Naber, Sycamore’s assistant superintendent, to Corcoran. “Our practice is to incorporate accurate and age-appropriate information into our curriculum at all times.”       

Sycamore did not respond to CityBeat’s requests for an interview.     

Derek Selznick, reproductive freedom project director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, has led an advocacy-based campaign for the past few years pushing for the removal of abstinence-only sex education programs from classrooms, specifically targeting New Hope Center’s program, Choosing the Best.

He says the partnership between New Hope Center and Northern Kentucky schools is tight because it was established so long ago, when abstinence-only programs were the only ones funded by the federal government.

“They have a pretty good grip on doing it because that’s the way it’s been done for a long time,” he says. “And I think people just kind of let it go.”

Whether Republicans in Congress let the issue go is another story.  

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch

On Feb. 9, Obama released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2017. He, again, has recommended not renewing the Title V program while increasing the PREP’s funding by $4 million. But the budget seems to have little chance of passing — the Republican-controlled House and Senate budget committees refuse to give it hearings.

One powerful legislator who will likely attempt to block Obama’s abstinence-only program cuts is Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance. Hatch has spearheaded the push for abstinence-only education for more than three decades — he pushed through the first federal funding stream for abstinence-only programs under the Adolescent Family Life Act of 1981 and in 2010 added the last-minute amendment to the Affordable Care Act that revived the Title V program.

Sen. Hatch has already expressed strong disapproval of Obama’s budget.

“Now in his eighth year of office,” Hatch said in a prepared statement, “the president has put forward a budget that encompasses some new, but mostly the same old recycled, misguided policies that have repeatedly failed to be cleared by Congress.” ©

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