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The Right Choice?

[whitespace] Viviane Isabeau Higher learning: Viviane Isabeau displays pamphlets distributed by a local anti-abortion group to Rohnert Park sex-ed students.

Michael Amsler



Anti-abortion groups are teaching sex ed in local public schools

By Janet Wells

WHEN VIVIANE Isabeau signed a permission slip for her 13-year-old daughter to attend a Family Life unit as part of seventh-grade sex education at Mountain Shadows Middle School in Rohnert Park, she thought, "Fine, I have no problem with my kid learning about biology and human reproduction."

But Isabeau wasn't so sanguine when she discovered that the four-part course was taught by a Santa Rosa-based anti-abortion group with ties to the Christian right.

"There's supposed to be a separation of church and state," Isabeau says. "If [the National Organization of Women] came in to do a program, there's no way they would have gotten past the school board. They would have found them too radical.

"My feeling is this group is just as radical."

Yet the Pregnancy Counseling Center of Sonoma County teaches its "Let's Take Another Look" program, covering such topics as reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases, dating, and peer pressure, at such area schools as Mountain Shadows in Rohnert Park, Willowside Middle School in Santa Rosa, Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, and Healdsburg Junior High School.

PCC, which also offers free pregnancy tests, counseling, and childbirth classes, "does a very excellent scientific presentation," says Mountain Shadows principal Lou Colby, adding that there had been no complaints from parents in the five years that the program has been offered to seventh graders as part of the Health/Science curriculum.

That is until Isabeau's daughter, Sophie, came home from class a few weeks ago and asked, "Mom, do you know what they're teaching us in this class?"

In a 50-minute session titled "I'm Worth Waiting For," PCC volunteer teacher Beth Perkins uses interactive games to talk about the risks and pressures related to sexual activity, and "invites" students in Gerry Shimazu's Mountain Shadows science class to "save their most precious gift of sexuality for marriage or a lifetime-committed relationship."

In one exercise, Perkins instructs every boy in class to roll up a sleeve. She then holds up a piece of masking tape and, slapping it on one student's arm, explains that it represents "Mary, a young woman who has the goal of someday getting married and having a family.

"Mary was pressured into having sexual relations with Adam. They had a fight, and" --Perkins rips the tape off Adam's arm--"then they break up." Perkins holds the tape up for the giggling students to see and says, "You can see a lot of Adam on this tape.

"Now Mary goes to college and dates Kyle," she continues, rubbing the piece of tape onto another boy's arm. "They break up," she says, tearing the tape off again. "It didn't hurt as much, did it? Now Mary meets the guy she really wants to marry," Perkins says, placing the tape on a third boy, then lifting it off. "And it hardly sticks at all," she says. "The problem is she has a bit of Adam and Kyle stuck to her." Then Perkins asks, "How many of you guys would like to have a lifetime committed relationship with a girl who gave away her greatest gift to a guy who was drunk and she was drunk; or, girls, to a guy who thinks about pornography?"

How "Mary" goes from being sexually active to tangled in alcohol and pornography is unclear, but Perkins does offer consolation for those who have "already opened their gift of sexuality":

"You will never be a physical virgin again, but you can wrap the package back up and save it for your intended life partner. It is called renewed virginity," she says. "If you do that you will be reducing the risk to zero of unplanned pregnancy or STDs."

Isabeau, who attended her daughter's "I'm Worth Waiting For" session, finds PCCs presentation "kind of creepy, using language that sounds politically correct" to mask a hidden agenda, she says.

"The emphasis on saving yourself for marriage, that's hard to object to. No one's advocating sex for a 13-year-old," Isabeau says. "But there's an implication of man-woman, Judeo-Christian [marriage], with no discussion of options outside of marriage.

"What bothered me is who these people are behind the scenes," she adds. "It seems like the school knows nothing about this group. The stuff just sounded good on the surface."

A TEACHER who is no longer at Mountain Shadows apparently advocated bringing in PCC several years ago, and it seems that the program has been rubber-stamped ever since without much scrutiny. The Pregnancy Counseling Center was even listed incorrectly on the parental permission clip as the "Pregnancy Council of Sonoma County."

Principal Colby, who came out of retirement in September to take over at Mountain Shadows, acknowledges that she automatically approved the agreement with PCC based on positive feedback from teachers and parents. The school, with board approval, pays $50 for the program, which covers the cost of presentation materials for about 300 seventh graders each year.

PCC's mission statement is "to encourage young people to a sex-free lifestyle until they are in a committed relationship," says Debby Hooks, PCC's director of education. "We're a non-profit organization with no political or denominational leaning. ... We get funding primarily from individuals and businesses."

When pressed for more specifics about funding sources and Christian ties, Hooks demurs, directing questions to the group's executive director, Donna Cornell. In a recent story about post-abortion counseling, Cornell told the Independent that PCC uses a 12-week Bible study in its counseling and recruits volunteers from local churches. While Cornell downplays the group's pro-life stance, PCC will not provide abortion referrals.

Also, PCC distributes to students a brochure put out by Focus on the Family, a controversial group profiled March 18 in a Rolling Stone article on the Christian right. A stalwart of the anti-homosexual campaign, Focus on the Family was founded more than 20 years ago in Arcadia, Calif., by James Dobson, a child psychologist and author of a book advocating corporal punishment for children. According to Rolling Stone, the group, now a "sprawling empire" in Colorado Springs, has grown into a $109 million-a year-ministry employing 1,300 people who produce a dozen different radio and television broadcasts, 14 publications, and a wide range of films and videos.

Mountain Shadows seventh graders received Focus on the Family's "The First Nine Months" brochure, which, Isabeau notes, employs the same well-known photographs of fetal development, by Lennart Nilsson, as the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue uses on its website. "Here's this church-funded right-wing group coming into our schools under the guise of sex education class," Isabeau says of Focus on the Family. "It's basically a Bible-thumping organization that wants to deny women, people of color, and gays their rights."

But PCC uses materials from many different organizations, Hooks says. "We get brochures from AIDS [advocacy] groups, whatever brochure has the information. Focus on the Family just happens to give it out. All it is, is a factual brochure on the different stages of development--nothing political," she adds. "That's what our aim is, to present the facts."

MANY PUBLIC schools bring in outside groups to help teach portions of science and health classes, including the abstinence-based curriculum mandated by the state for seventh-grade sex education. Planned Parenthood, which has long been at the forefront of the pro-choice movement, charges $35 an hour ($15 less than PCC), plus mileage, for education presentations, and even reduces or waives fees for many schools.

"I have problems with PCC coming into the schools, mainly because they have a particular agenda, and it's often disrespectful of others' beliefs," says Toni Guy, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood Golden Gate, which has contracts for sex education presentations at Comstock and Cook Middle schools in Santa Rosa, Petaluma Jr. High School, Altimira Middle School in Sonoma, and Creekside Middle School in Rohnert Park. "Some schools hear 'Planned Parenthood' and say, 'No way.' They see the name as controversial and know that anti-choice parents will raise the roof," Guy says.

"Planned Parenthood has been doing this for 75 years," she adds. "My staff are all trained sexuality educators. We want professionals, people who go in there and do not bring their personal agendas. The information needs to be free of bias, needs to be respectful and age appropriate."

"We're very careful with our language. We try very hard not to have a particular slant," says Guy, referring to PCC's use of a "sexually pure" category on a handout directing seventh graders to rank qualities that they might look for in themselves or a partner. "That to me has religious overtones. ... Does it say that sex makes someone impure?"

In response to complaints from Isabeau and several other parents, Mountain Shadows administrators now are looking into PCC's curriculum. "It's what's not talked about that I find objectionable," Isabeau says. "What I want is dialogue, and that's not what's happening [at PCC's sex-ed classes]."

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From the April 1-7, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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