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Education Reporter

California ACLU Strives to Ban Abstinence Education
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California's sex education standards call for public school students to learn about sex and sexually transmitted diseases beginning in 5th grade. Beginning in 7th grade, students are to learn about condoms and other contraceptives, among a list of other sex ed topics. No public school student in California hears an "abstinence only" message in school. But now the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is working to prevent students from hearing about abstinence until marriage at all, even in the context of a sex education curriculum that also teaches them about contraceptives. So far, the ACLU has won support from at least one County Office of Education in its effort to keep speakers promoting abstinence out of California schools.

The ACLU has targeted Free to Be, a group that has sent speakers into Sonoma County schools for the past 17 years. Free to Be was affiliated with Catholic Charities from its founding until 2007. The group's presenters, normally teens, talk to students about the benefits of abstaining from sex until marriage. Free to Be presents in about 30 middle and high schools each year, and has reached more than 75,000 teens since 1992.

Between 2000 and 2007, Free to Be received grants from the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program, a Bush administration initiative. Groups that receive these grants agree to teach "that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity," and "that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."

According to the ACLU, it is illegal for speakers to present that message in California public schools. In 2006, a Santa Rosa parent complained to the ACLU that his son had heard a presentation by a Free to Be speaker. After threats from the ACLU, the Sonoma County Office of Education informed the county's 40 school districts that Free to Be was no longer allowed to present on campus. The ACLU followed up with letters to each district requesting written confirmation that Free to Be would be banned from all schools beginning in the 2009-10 school year.

The ACLU claims that schools violate state law by inviting Free to Be to campus, because Free to Be speakers do not teach students about contraceptives. Sue Bisbee, executive director of Free to Be, says it is not true that under California law, "anyone who goes in has to thoroughly cover all issues." Currently, says Bisbee, "Public Health or Planned Parenthood goes in and does the contraception piece, United Against Sexual Assault goes in and does the sexual violence piece. There are many options for them. . . . We are a piece of the pie that teens need to hear."

Not all Sonoma County school districts are eager to comply with the ACLU's demands. "I'm really uncomfortable having one organization dictate to us that we can't invite another organization into a school," said Keller McDonald, superintendent of the West Sonoma County Union High School District. "The determination of that is the responsibility of each individual school district." Two high schools in McDonald's district have invited Free to Be speakers into classrooms in the past; the same students who heard from Free to Be also heard other guest speakers present information on contraception. "We invited [Free to Be] as a guest speaker to provide a viewpoint, but not the whole curriculum," McDonald explained. "We look at it as one side of a complex issue."

The next stage of the skirmish may depend partly on the results of an independent, third-party assessment of Free to Be. Selena Polston, a social worker who is participating in that evaluation, wrote in an editorial in the Press Democrat (6-22-09) that she is "one of the least likely people to be standing up for sexual abstinence education in the post-Bush era." Polston is a native Los Angelean, not religious, not fond of abstinence education, and the daughter of "lefty" parents, one of whom was a sex therapist. Nevertheless, her interviews with hundreds of 9th-graders about their experiences with Free to Be have convinced her the program is a good one.

"What many students have told me," Polston relates, "is that Free to Be has helped them realize that choosing to be sexually abstinent during high school does not mean that they are undesirable or that they are condemning themselves to the life of a social outcast." Polston quotes a letter in which one 9th-grade girl wrote, "I had always thought that sex was just a part of high school that everyone with a social life would go through. . . . [The Free to Be presentation] made me realize abstinence wouldn't make me a friendless loser. Rather, it would make me a healthy smart person."

Surveys showed that students' opinions about abstinence until marriage and their abstinent peers were 25% more positive after listening to a Free to Be speaker. Free to Be is considering its legal options for fighting the ACLU's interpretation of state law on sex education. Several school district superintendents who disagree with the ACLU also said they are seeking legal counsel. (The Press Democrat, 6-7-09)

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