Monday’s forum on changes to Saline High School sex education curriculum instead turned into a referendum on Planned Parenthood.
Judging by comments made at the public meeting, Planned Parenthood lost badly. Judging by the applause, perhaps the public support for the changes wasn't so one-sided.
The district’s sex education advisory council proposed two major changes to the high school curriculum. The high school health class would use students, trained by Planned Parenthood, to provide a lesson on contraceptives. The other change was a new class explaining LGBTQ issues.
After a brief introduction from Saline Area Schools Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Steve Laatsch, Saline High School health teacher Natalie Freeburn addressed the 175 people who attended the meeting. Many in the audience wore “No Planned Parenthood” stickers on their shirts.
Freeburn addressed the most controversial proposal.
“The first change isn’t really a change in curriculum at all, but in who is delivering the curriculum,” Freeburn said.
Saline would use students, who receive 50 hours of training from Planned Parenthood, to teach their peers one lesson about contraceptives. All other lessons will still be taught by the health teacher.
“When you get a group of teens who feel comfortable with each other and start a dialogue, and I am the merely the facilitator in the room, they are great at guiding themselves through the content. They get to the end and they know the risks and possible outcomes,” Freeburn said.
The second change is to add a lesson on LGBTQ youth into the mental, emotional and social health unit. The peer-to-peer teachers would be used for this class too.
The lesson was created two years ago in response to a county-wide need, said Rick Bicknell, who runs the Planned Parenthood peer-to-peer education program.
“We know that (LGBTQ individuals) are more likely to experience drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, homelessness. All these things are very important to us. We want to address that in a very interactive way,” Bicknell said.
Another proposed change, Bicknell said, is lesson on sexual content. It focuses on legal consent, social consent and the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships.
Freeburn said changes to the “Senior Strategies” class, which prepares students for the transition to college, are designed to help reduce the number of sexual assaults on college campuses. She said the messages might be better received coming from a peer.
Bicknell brought 22 students who teach peer-to-peer classes in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Milan schools. Throughout the 90-minute forum they answered questions.
When the public statements and questions began, many in the audience used their two minutes of speaking time to criticize the mission of Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization that provides sexual health care, including abortions.
Several people said Planned Parenthood will encourage promiscuity and abortion in Saline High School classrooms.
Kathy Dobrowolski said sex education has been a failure in schools and asked the council to not allow Planned Parenthood to participate in the sex education program.
“Teens are told they can have sex whenever and with whoever they want as long as it’s safe sex with contraceptives,” Dobrowolski said. “Planned Parenthood’s version of sex ed isn’t about health, it’s a social movement.”
Paul Dobrowolski said that teaching reliance on safe sex leads to abortions.
“54 percent of all women who are seeking abortions are doing so because their contraceptives failed,” he said. “After failure of contraceptives, Planned Parenthood will be in your student’s visibility to offer abortions for the price of $500.”
Freeburn noted that Michigan high school health teachers are not lawfully permitted to promote or discuss abortion with students. If asked, she simply states, “I’m sorry, I cannot address that topic in the classroom. It’s simply not my place,” Freeburn said.
Tom Frederick was a teacher at Saline High School for 25 years and was chair of the school’s science department. He said he was concerned for students who have the opposite view.
“How will we handle that? Over and again you’ve said you’ll be compassionate. One of the trainers (of the peer-to-peer teachers) lashed out against someone because his view is different. And (a little later) the teens, who are awesome people, they were sniggering and nodding their heads when Mr. Lee was sharing. If my kid is in a group and has an alternate view and there is sniggering and head nodding … we’re a pluralistic society, we need to protect everyone,” Frederick said.
Another person also said he was concerned that kids opposed to the LGBTQ lifestyle would face bullying.
Nearly all of the speakers expressed disapproval of some element of the sex education curriculum.
A few speakers came from a different perspective.
Tamara Moore reminded parents they have the ability to remove their children from sex education classes.
“Obviously there is a lot of strong feelings in this room. What I would say is, if that is against your belief, if you don’t want your kids to participate in this, then don’t have them participate in this. They can always opt out. You’ve been given that option from fourth grade on,” Moore said. “But please do not prevent my child from learning about this and being able to help support their own LGBTQ friends.”
It was clear that much of the disagreement was with Planned Parenthood’s involvement. One woman questioned if the district had considered any other organization to provide assistance. School officials said they weren’t aware of any in the county or state. Another woman in the audience said alternative agencies provided peer-based lessons in New Jersey and North Carolina.
A student who teaches the peer-to-peer lessons in another Washtenaw school said that she only mentions Planned Parenthood once in the classroom – when she introduces herself.
“People are here to attack planned parenthood. I think this meeting would be more productive if we talked about sex education,” she said.
Another peer educator explained that when she gives the contraception presentation, the first thing she talks about is abstinence.
“The first thing we say is that the only 100 percent method of birth control is abstinence,” she said.
She said sex education isn’t about abortion or her view on planned parenthood.
“Nor should it be about your views on abortion or planned parenthood,” she said. “What it’s about is the safety of your children as they grow older and become adults. We know the average age of a person to start having sex is 17 years old. That’s a fact. We’re here to say that when you decide to have sex, this is how you’re supposed to do it safely.”
The school district is also seeking feedback from parents with an online survey that’s live until 9 p.m. Thursday.
The sex education advisory council will examine feedback from Monday’s hearing and then determine second steps for a hearing May 30. The council will meet again in mid-June to discuss feedback from the community and discuss the next steps.
The discussion remained civil for the most part. Tension increased when Ricky Bicknell, an educator for Planned Parenthood, accused one of the opposition of being taken away by police after harassing users Planned Parenthood. Another tense moment came when Bicknell asked the audience to stop recording the meeting. The comment seemed to be directed at one man in particular, who replied that it was a public meeting and he was within his rights to record.
Saline ninth and 11th grade students are among those surveyed by the Michigan Profile for Healthy Youth. Laatsch said that while Saline students are less sexually active than their Washtenaw County peers, the most recent survey showed a slight increase in the number of sexually active freshmen and a slight decrease in the number of sexually active juniors.
Saline Board of Education President Tim Austin, Vice President Paul Hynek and Trustees Dennis Valenti and Michael McVey attended the meeting.
Laatsch said the district is looking for new members to serve on the council.