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Shawn Vestal: Spokane schools should stop tiptoeing through sex ed controversy

Not too long ago, a relatively small but relatively loud group of people approached the Spokane School Board to oppose a planned sex-ed curriculum.

The result: The process of adopting a comprehensive human growth and development curriculum for middle schools – whose apparently controversial elements include teaching acceptance for gay kids and demonstrating condom use – was halted, and the district dove into a bureaucratic public-relations murk, apparently hoping the issue would be buried by discussions of committee relationships and curriculum adoption processes.

Now, instead of adopting one program with a proven track record, the district plans to pick and choose lessons among different programs. In doing so, health educators worry, the district may wind up undercutting the effectiveness of the program and the ability to measure that effectiveness – all in an attempt to placate an utterly unplacatable set of critics.

The flash point of the controversy, after all, is Planned Parenthood paranoia and misinformation. The curriculum in question, known as Get Real, was developed in part by the organization, and so the organization’s opponents rose up and shared their view of Planned Parenthood as an evil, scheming, baby-parts-selling abortion mill. This uprising eventually included hundreds of emails from outside the city, taking issue with the “PLANNED PARENTHOOD SEX ED CURRICULUM,” as more than one message put it.

Here’s a representative complaint, emailed to the district in December: “Planned Parenthood represents the most radical fringes of sex-positive and gender erasive ideology. To give them access to the children you are entrusted with for seven hours a day would be a malicious attack on their innocence and sanity.”

It’s real world versus fantasy land, in other words. However the district dilly-dallies, it cannot eliminate that fundamental conflict. It either chooses the real world and takes the heat, or it betrays the best interests of kids to mollify conspiracists who think the district might possibly be going to war against the sexual purity of sixth-graders.

In the real world, half of Spokane high school seniors are having sex, according to a 2016 health district survey. In fantasy land, if you don’t teach kids about sex they won’t have it.

In the real world, half the kids having sex in this town aren’t using condoms, and our teenage pregnancy rate is sky high. In fantasy land, teaching them about condoms plants a previously unknown idea in their heads.

In the real world, kids need to learn how to show respect to the different kinds of people who live around them. In fantasy land, schools should engage in a constant sanctimonious crusade against homosexuality.

Between these poles walks the school district, but it can’t stay between them forever. Having rejected a committee recommendation, following months of staff and faculty review, to adopt Get Real, the district is now revisiting the matter.

Committees made up of citizens and faculty and staff will develop a plan that will take parts of Get Real and other curricula. The final plan will be made public in advance of a meeting of the executive committee of the Human Growth and Development Board and the Citizens Advisory Committee later this month and proceed to the school board thereafter.

All of this, district spokesman Kevin Morrison said, is an attempt to have a “clean process” for making the decision, not an attempt to satisfy everyone. But there is no process clean enough to eliminate the heat the district took before and will take again – no process clean enough for the critics, that is, except capitulation.

And capitulation, on the matters of teaching alternatives to abstinence or fairness for gay kids or so many other of the critics’ flashpoints, is not possible within state requirements.

The piecemeal approach, district officials say, is an effort to get the best overall curriculum possible, because no single one works best for every grade and state standard. But it’s obvious that what’s going on is as much an attempt at bomb defusal and elephant-ignoring as it is curriculum development. It’s not lost on a lot of observers that the retreat and reconsideration pushed the matter back until after the current maintenance and operations levy.

Supporters of Get Real – many of whom have also weighed in with the district – say the approach undercuts the effectiveness of a program that is developed to be comprehensive and based on measurable progress.

“It’s not ideal,” said Ashley Beck, senior research scientist for the Spokane Regional Health District. “It’s not how evidence-based curriculums were designed to be used. The health district’s position is we really support an evidence-based curriculum, and one that is comprehensive.”

Rachel Todd, who is an educator for Planned Parenthood, agreed. “If you want to use a program that is evidence-based and has positive outcomes, you have to use the program in total,” for it to be effective, she said.

Spokane needs a good, comprehensive sex-ed curriculum, because Spokane has a problem with kids and sex. On average, more teenagers have sex here than in the county and state at large. They tend to start having sex at young ages, and more teenagers become pregnant, give birth or have abortions than the county and state average. Spokane County youths have higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases than the rest of the state.

In a 2016 survey by the health district, almost half of Spokane 12th-graders said they had had sex. Twenty-six percent of 10th-graders had, as had 8 percent of eighth-graders.

This is the real world that the district must address. As is this: Half the kids having sex didn’t use a condom.

“The data really shows us that as a community, we need be addressing adolescent sexual health in a better way,” Beck said.

Doing that will require the school board and the district to recognize that it cannot square a good, effective, factual sex-ed curriculum with feverish Planned Parenthood paranoia about “deviant behavior.”

It cannot square its responsibility to provide medically accurate, factual information to students with the concerns of critics who believe kids whose innocence should be “protected” from factual information, or who are convinced that the curriculum is going to teach sixth-graders how to use sex toys, or who wish it would focus on the essential sinfulness of homosexuality, or who believe that sex-ed is a secret plot by Planned Parenthood to get kids pregnant so they can sell them abortions.

All of those are actual concerns expressed by real people in emails to the school district – concerns to which the district has yielded.

What they demonstrate most clearly of all is that there is no way to tiptoe through this minefield.