On Friday, May 29, Gaia Democratic School teacher Starri Hedges led a group of students on a field trip to Smitten Kitten, a sex shop, to round out a year of sex ed. By the following Monday, a dismayed parent declared he was pulling his children out of school and the newspapers were calling.
Over the next few weeks, Gaia became an international sensation. Hedges was smeared on Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones. Hate mail from religious nuts and abstinence-only champions flooded her home. Creepy phone calls to the school were full of rambling threats. The school cancelled a trip to the Walker sculpture garden for fear reporters would confront students there.
Some suggested the group of 11- to 17-year-olds who journeyed to Smitten Kitten were victims of a traumatizing field trip. One dad, Lynn Floyd, told the Star Tribune it was a “major breach of trust” that his two daughters participated without his consent.
Hedges, who has maintained a defensive hush throughout the calamity, now explains that all custodial parents signed open permission slips at the beginning of the year. Smitten Kitten was only open to students who were enrolled in the sex ed class, and no one was required to go.
“The whole point of the field trip was, the kids asked for it so I arranged it,” Hedges says. “At a free school, that’s what teachers are supposed to do. We’re supposed to help kids access the resources that they want. I didn’t actually think of this field trip as different as any other field trips.”
The kids themselves took to it swimmingly, says mom Autumn McDonald Cunningham, who also sits on the board of Gaia. Her 11-year-old daughter bought condoms – but not because she’s sexually active.
“My daughter said when she is old enough, she knows where to buy them without judgement,” says McDonald Cunningham. “She actually blew them up into balloons because you know, she’s still a kid. But she’s proud to have done it just to say she’s done it.”
At Smitten Kitten, the students sat and listened to a short lecture on safer sex practices by the store’s trained sexual health educators. They asked questions about proper condom usage, yeast infections, balancing the body’s pH and the dangers of using certain chemicals found in lubricants. Debriefing back at school, kids said they felt “educated and empowered,” McDonald Cunningham says. “They weren’t seeing themselves as victims.”
McDonald Cunningham added that parents enroll their kids at Gaia because a purposely small student body of just fewer than 40 students allows staff to give each child individualized attention. The school downplays standardized testing and mainstream Common Core curricula in favor of letting kids decide what to learn. In this case, the kids asked for comprehensive sex ed, so the school made it happen.
Parents trust the democratic school model to give them the education they need, “to get a good base in who they are as people and learn how to think before being told what to think,” McDonald Cunningham says.
For Hedges, the saddest consequences of the Smitten Kitten controversy was the loss of the students whose parents complained. In a small school like Gaia, if even one family pulls out, it tears apart friendships that have been years in the making.
“I do understand that sexuality is very complex, and it’s a difficult thing for parents to think about sometimes,” Hedges says. “It may seem that I shouldn’t have been surprised that some took issue, but I honestly was because it’s not like sex ed classes are a secret at our school.”
With a background in HIV testing and counseling at the now-closed LGBTQ youth center District 202, Hedges says she stands by comprehensive sex ed. “It is not fun to tell young people that they are HIV positive. It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life, and sexual health education can change that.”
Gaia’s board is now in discussions about whether to change its field trip policies to require individual permission slips for each outing. It’s a democratic process that involves parents and students, so nothing’s set in stone yet.
“Here at Gaia, we tend to put the students’ consent first, which is not to say that we don't respect parents or want their support, but because they also trust their kids,” Hedges says. “Our 11-year-olds are very intelligent. They’re not ignorant children.”
She adds that students only purchased condoms at Smitten Kitten, which in Minnesota they are allowed to do without parental consent. She never would have encouraged it though, she says, because Gaia provides them for free.
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