By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
To four of the 30 mothers who were influential in the suburban Osseo School District's January decision to unveil a two-track sex education program this coming fall, these characterizations are as befuddling as they are amusing. Self-described "die-hards," Jeri Gort, Cindy Bailey, Judy Peterzen, and Vicky Johnson claim no larger agenda than "choice," no other motive but concern for their children's physical and emotional well-being. Indeed, in person they are neither ravenous nor inflexible. With pictures of grinning kids buttoned to their handbags, their contemporary clothes bought off the rack at the nearest department store, they're as average as a gang of suburban soccer moms could be.
Gort is a churchgoing community activist with a graduate degree in social work; Bailey a soft-spoken businesswoman who typically votes Independent and has an affinity for crunching numbers; Peterzen a level-headed registered nurse and school-board member. "I don't even go to church. So what does that make me?" Johnson, a medical lab technician, quips sardonically.
What they've managed to accomplish, though, is a national first--a citizen-driven coup that has stirred up politicos on both sides of the civic divide. (Dr. James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, a militant think tank located in Colorado Springs, now holds Osseo up as a paragon of hope in his monthly newsletter.) After two years of strategy sessions, committee meetings, and one school-board election, Gort and Co. managed to force the district into offering Osseo parents a choice--between the comprehensive sex education curriculum already taught in the district's four junior highs and three high schools, and an abstinence-until-marriage track, which, Gort says, can function as a kind of "club" for teens who believe sex is best left for later. Birth control will be addressed in the abstinence-only format, but only in terms of its low success and high failure rates. "There will be no discussion of the mechanics of birth control," Peterzen says of the new curriculum. "It might weaken the resolve of some students." The origin of AIDS and other STDs will also be covered, but again, abstinence will be presented as the sole path of resistance to the infections. Dialogue about homosexuality and abortion will be off-limits.
"Condoms are not the panacea we once thought they were," Peterzen says, recalling the STD tragedies she has seen as a nurse. "All you end up doing is reducing the risk to an 18 percent failure rate. That's not good enough for my children."
"Over fifty percent of these kids are abstinent through graduation, despite their exposure to mixed messages on TV and in music videos," Gort enthuses. "With this new track, we're giving our kids a consistent message at home, in church, and at school. But MOAPPP, Planned Parenthood, and SIECUS think we're too stupid to make our own decisions. Who makes them the judge?"
Waid Johnson, a health educator at Common Health Clinic in Stillwater, maintains he's not in the business of judging or condemning parents who are active in their children's lives. He agrees that an abstinence-only message is appropriate for students in the primary grades and is often successful through puberty when it's also emphasized at home. When it comes to kids in junior high and senior high, though, he says the data on programs that include a safe-sex emphasis is undisputed. "There are empirical numbers that prove children who receive comprehensive sex education will delay sexual intercourse," he reasons. "To me, it's scary we even have to have this conversation. In Europe, kids get sex ed from kindergarten through secondary school. It's mandatory. And they have much lower teen birth rates."
Johnson is particularly worried about the kids who might be put at risk if placed in an abstinence-only class: kids scared to tell their parents they're sexually active or gay or both; kids who might be on the receiving end of sexual abuse and incest.
"Will some of our students fall through the cracks? Yes," Gort responds. "But what we're saying is that the schools aren't responsible for that. The parents are. After all, they're the ones who have to live with the ramifications."
MOAPPP's Nancy Nelson stresses that messages about abstinence are crucial to any comprehensive program, which, she says, should also include alternatives for kids who choose to have sex no matter what; course material that's racially, ethnically, and culturally nonbiased; and an overall theme that encourages healthy sexual relationships, not fear. "What's ironic is that kids in Minnesota schools aren't getting anything close to comprehensive sex education in the first place," Nelson adds. "We've never done a good job of developing a holistic approach. That's what we should be fighting for. The Osseo plan is based on misinformation."
Gort's group balked when asked if there were statistics available to back the claim that if schools teach adolescents about birth control they'll become more promiscuous--an argument central to their philosophy and deemed ludicrous by groups such as SIECUS.
While preparing to lobby the Osseo School Board, though, Cindy Bailey did extensive research on the effectiveness of condoms, and found studies conducted by Planned Parenthood that show condoms fail between 18 and 20 percent of the time in preventing pregnancy. She also dug up persuasive data about STDs such as genital herpes, chlamydia, and the human papilloma virus (HPV)--diseases that can be contracted even during sex with condoms and can lead to sterility, cancer, and, in very rare cases, death. Mary Jo George, an advocate for the Minnesota AIDS project, points out that data on condom failure rates are linked directly to misuse, and insists that no one in favor of comprehensive sex ed believes birth control is a "panacea." It is an option, though, of which she believes many sexually active kids need to be fully aware.